It seems to be a standard rule in assessing the prospects of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in particular states to use the November 2008 numbers as a benchmark. However, as I have pointed out, in the last three presidential elections, the winning candidate has won a percentage of the popular vote identical to or within 1% of the percentage of the popular vote for the House of Representatives in the election held two years before. In this case, the November 2010 results are very different from 2008. In 2008 Obama won 53% of the popular vote. In 2010 House Democrats won 45% of the popular vote.
To gauge where the race is now in the various states I have prepared the following table. It lists the 16 states where Obama’s 2008 percentage was between 49% and 57%, ranked by Obama percentage. I have added Arizona, which the Obama campaign has reportedly been considering targeting; Obama got a higher percentage in Georgia and almost identical percentages to Arizona’s in South Carolina and South Dakota, but no one considers any of them to be in play.
The first column of figures is Obama’s percentage in 2008. The second column is his percentage in the realclearpolitics.com average of recent polls (or the most recent results in states where RCP doesn’t calculate an average. An old rule of political interpretation is that an incumbent tends to get the same percentage in an election as he is getting in polls; 100% know him and if less than 50% say they’ll vote for him, he’ll tend to get less than 50%. Of course it’s entirely possible for an incumbent like Obama to run a few points better, there is a margin of error in polls and current polling is testing opinion at a point in time and it may change later. But I think Obama’s poll numbers are within reasonable range of being commensurate with the results of the 2008 and 2010 elections. The third column of figures shows the Democratic percentage for House of Representatives in 2010.
State Obama % 08 Obama % 12 Demo % 10
Michigan (16 EVs) 57 48 43
New Jersey (14) 57 50 48
New Mexico (5) 57 51 52
Wisconsin (10) 56 48 44
Nevada (6) 55 50 45
Pennsylvania (20) 54 48 48
New Hampshire (4) 54 49 45
Minnesota (10) 54 50 48
Iowa (6) 54 46 43
Colorado (9) 54 47 45
Virginia (13) 53 48 42
Ohio (18) 51 46 42
Florida (29) 51 46 36
North Carolina (15) 50 44 45
Indiana (11) 50 40 39
Missouri (10) 49 43 37
Arizona (11) 45 42 42
The first thing to note is that Obama’s current percentage is closer to the 2010 Democratic percentage than to Obama’s 2008 percentage in every state but three. The exceptions are Nevada and Arizona, where the current Obama percentage is right in the middle of the two, and Florida, where the Democratic percentage in 2010 was very low because Democrats failed to contest three of the then 25 districts and because the Republican districting plan then in effect left few target seats for Democrats to seriously contest.
Second, it’s worth noting that in only four states is Obama at 50% or 51%. It should be added that he leads Romney by double digits in New Jersey, New Mexico and Minnesota; for the moment, at least, those look pretty safe for Obama.
However, and this is the third point, it’s pretty clear that Indiana, Missouri and Arizona, where Obama is polling in the low 40s, are out of reach for him as things stand now. The Democratic victory in the Arizona 8th district yesterday is surely less a reflection of opinion on issues generally than it is a tribute to the gallantry of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who campaigned in person for her former staffer.
Finally, and this is the most important point, these numbers indicate that 11 of these 17 states are currently in play, in the sense that it’s reasonably easy to imagine either Obama or Romney carrying them: Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina. Obama carried every single one of them in 2008, when they had 148 electoral votes; they have 146 electoral votes this year. Without them, and without Indiana and the single electoral vote he won in Nebraska, Obama would win only 201 electoral votes and Romney would win 339.
Republicans won the popular vote for the House in 2010 in every one of these states, and Obama is at the 50% mark in only one, Nevada. Perhaps more important, Obama’s current poll numbers in each one but Florida is closer to or equally far from the Democrats’ 2010 percentage in the House vote than Obama’s 2008 percentage. Although one suspects that the two candidates will split some of these 11 states, It’s possible to imagine Romney—or Obama—carrying every one of them.