For those of us who think Barack Obama will win re-election tomorrow, the weight of evidence is on our side. The most recent national polls—from Pew, NBC News, CBS News, YouGov, and ABC News—show the president with a slight lead over Mitt Romney. Obama holds leads by greater than two points in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Nevada—the states that give him 271 electoral votes—and he's just as ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Like I said in my prediction yesterday, if you gave Obama every state where he held a lead, he would win with 303 electoral votes. It’s no wonder that the election forecasters—Nate Silver, Sam Wang, Drew Linzer—place Obama’s probability of winning in the 85 percent to 90 percent range: Barring a huge Obama bias in the polling, the president is virtually certain to be re-elected.
With that said, life isn’t as predictable as we’d like to believe, and anything can happen. It is possible that the pollsters have failed—or at least, are missing something important in the electorate. If that’s the case, Obama’s victory isn’t as certain as it looks. Put another way, even at this late stage, a Romney victory is still possible.
What would it look like?
For Romney to win, he needs to hold three states: Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. North Carolina and Florida look like they will fall into Romney’s column—he holds leads in each state. Virginia leans slightly in Obama’s direction, but a Romney win is still more than possible. For the sake of the argument, let’s say that Romney overperforms and ekes out a small victory in the commonwealth. Along with solid red states and those that lean red, this brings him to 248 electoral votes—22 away from winning. Obama holds durable advantages in Nevada, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, so those should stay in his column. That leaves four states: Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, and New Hampshire. Of the group, Colorado is Obama’s weakest state—his lead there is almost as narrow as in Virginia. It makes sense to give that to Romney, leaving him with 257 electoral votes. Next on the list is New Hampshire, where Obama holds a two-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average.
Here, it’s worth making a short aside. Currently, pollsters assume an electorate that looks more like the one in 2008—where whites were 74 percent of voters—than the one in 2004, where whites were 77 percent of voters. As such, for Romney to succeed, he needs to win a supermajority of white voters—upward of 61 percent. If he hits the mark—he currently polls at an average of 57 percent—then overwhelmingly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire become toss-ups, if not places where Romney holds a slight advantage. But if pollsters are wrong, and whites are a heavier proportion of the electorate than we think, then Romney’s threshold is closer to 58 percent—just a point over where he stands.
Let’s say that’s the case. Iowa becomes a toss-up, and New Hampshire leans GOP, as was true in 2004, when Bush won the state. If we give the former to Obama and the latter to Romney, the electoral vote tally is 259 to 261. Only Ohio remains.
Now, typically—in close elections—Ohio leans slightly Republican. George Bush won it by small margins in 2004 and 2008, and it’s been competitive for the last 30 years. Currently, Obama holds a 2.9-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average and has led in 11 of the last 12 polls (one, from Rasmussen, was a tie). But if the electorate is whiter than we think, then Ohio is closer than we think—a genuine toss-up. It’s in this scenario that Romney could win. Here’s what the map looks like:
This is an unlikely scenario. In addition to a systemic polling failure, Obama needs to be a little weaker among white voters than he looks, and turnout among nonwhites needs to be a little lower as well. The odds that these things happen at once in a single election are incredibly low. But if you’re trying to build a possible scenario to the White House for Romney, this is it.