It's been a bad month for President Obama. In the swing state of Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker beat back a high-profile Democratic recall effort by a wide margin. The most recent jobs report showed tepid job growth, suggesting a stubbornly weak economy. Obama gave presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney a gift that could keep on giving when he declared at a news conference that "the private sector is doing fine." And the president was forced to assert executive privilege in response to a planned congressional contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder.
It's no surprise, then, that Obama has been consistently polling below 50 percent nationally -- in a dead heat with Romney. That's a troubling sign for any incumbent.
Despite Obama's problems, however, viewed on a state-by-state basis, the race is more encouraging for him. As of now, Obama has a clearer path to the required 270 electoral votes than Romney does. This was apparent in a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released Tuesday, which showed Romney within a statistically insignificant three points of Obama nationally, but eight points behind him among voters in a dozen swing states.
According to New York Times' blogger and statistician Nate Silver's model of current polling, Obama has a 61 percent chance of winning the electoral vote.
Looking at the map, it isn't hard to see how that could be the case. If Romney wins Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and Florida -- large swing states Obama carried in 2008 -- he'd still end up with just 266 electoral votes, four short of what he needs. Getting over the top would require victories in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Colorado or Nevada -- states that Obama carried by an average of 12 points in 2008. Nobody expects Obama to repeat his performance from four years ago, but he could do substantially worse and still eke out a victory.
Part of this has to do with the increased difficulty for Republicans in the interior west states, which have seen an influx of liberal residents relocating from the coastal west, as well as growth in the Hispanic population.
For instance, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole carried Colorado in 1996, despite losing the election by a landslide, and George W. Bush carried it in both of his successful campaigns. But Obama won the state by 9 points. In 2010, a banner election year for Republicans nationally, Democrats still won a U.S. Senate race there and the gubernatorial election.
It's also worth noting that in several swing states, the unemployment rate is well below the national average of 8.2 percent. For instance, it's 5 percent in New Hampshire, 5.1 percent in Iowa and 5.6 percent in Virginia. This isn't to say that Romney's economic message won't win people over in those states, but it may be less of a concern than in a state such as North Carolina, where it's at 9.4 percent.
That isn't to say that Romney cannot win the presidency. As with any analysis at this point in the race, it's important to note that polls don't really start mattering until September, after the parties hold their conventions, campaigning begins in earnest and the public starts paying closer attention.
And if the economy continues to underperform, with the problems perhaps exacerbated by tremors in Europe, states that look difficult for Romney now may start to fall into his column, and he could end up winning easily in November.
That said, as always, it's important for observers to discount the importance of national polling and focus on state-level surveys.