President Obama has an overall edge in the 12 decisive battleground states that is measurably greater than his advantage in national polling.
The dynamic, which may reflect a combination of lower swing-state unemployment rates and demographic advantages for the president, is causing stirrings of unease among Republicans, even as they emphasize that it is important not to read too much into the state of the race right now.
“Obama is concentrating his considerable early resources and messaging in the swing states, and it’s had an impact,” said Mark McKinnon, who served as a media adviser for President George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns.
The crucial battleground states number about a dozen: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Taking the polling averages used by Nate Silver in the New York Times, the president is ahead in 10 of the 12 vital states. If those polls were borne out on Election Day, Obama would coast to victory with 332 electoral college votes. Only 270 votes are needed to win the presidency.
Awarding Obama only the states in which he now leads by 3 percentage points or more in the polling averages still sees him safely home.
By that measure, as of last Friday, he would win 8 of the 12 battlegrounds, for a total of 290 electoral votes.
Romney victories in Florida, Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia would leave the Republican marooned on 248 electoral votes.
Strategists including Karl Rove have, in recent months, noted that Romney’s path to victory is a challenging one in terms of the electoral map.
Now, Democrats are citing the same argument to justify their guarded confidence.
“All the swing states this time are places [Obama] has been able to win in the past,” said David Beattie, a Florida-based Democratic pollster. “Some of them, like Nevada and Colorado, are pretty solidly in his direction. One of the most optimistic things for Obama is that Iowa and Virginia are still regarded as swing states.”
Advertising has been a key factor.
Obama has been outspending the Romney campaign by a considerable amount — his TV advertising outlay for June was $32.2 million compared against a total advertising spend of $10.4 million for Romney.
But TV ads assailing Romney are unlikely to be the only reason for Obama’s battleground-state advantage. The president gets an assist from some intriguing trends in both economic and demographic data.
Based upon the most recent job figures, which covered June, only four of the 12 battleground states have unemployment rates that are above — or, in the case of Colorado, identical to — the national average of 8.2 percent.
The relative lack of pain felt in the job market in some of the other swing states may well be playing in Obama’s favor.
Take New Hampshire, for example. Obama’s average polling lead of more than 4 percentage points might seem incongruous in a traditional swing state that is overwhelmingly white and adjacent to Romney’s Massachusetts base. But the fact that joblessness is running at 5.1 percent could be an important part of the explanation.
Statistics like that “make for more fertile ground for the president to make his argument,” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist.
Not everyone is convinced by the state-by-state unemployment argument, however.
David Yepsen, who covered many presidential elections during a 34-year career with the Des Moines Register, cautioned that economic statistics in general were less important than how people feel about their lives.
“I don’t think in Iowa they are feeling particularly good right now,” Yepsen said. “Looking at the unemployment rate is great if you are an economist, but not if you are the man in the street.” (Iowa’s unemployment rate is 5.2 percent.)
Even where the job-market pain is at its most intense, however, Obama can benefit from a curious pattern that might be termed “demographic insulation.”
The four battleground states with worse-than-average unemployment rates also have higher than average Hispanic or African-American populations — two key pillars of Obama’s support.
Nevada, for example, has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, at 11.6 percent. But the share of its population defined as “white, non-Hispanic” by the U.S. Census Bureau is just 53.6 percent, a full 10 percentage points lower than the national average. Hispanics make up 27.1 percent of the overall population in Nevada, and Obama leads in recent polls by an average of 5 percentage points.
Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist, acknowledges that Nevada’s demographics might mean that Obama is “a little bit insulated.”
But, he adds, “on the other hand, Nevada cannot possibly be pleased with the direction of the country. And, remember, we’re not talking about Romney needing to win 80 percent of the Hispanic vote. He maybe needs to win about 40 percent.”
Observers of all political stripes agree that it is much too early to predict whether the current polling patterns will hold. The party conventions and the presidential debates could change the election in an instant, while the undecided voters who will be so crucial to the eventual outcome are paying little attention to politics at the moment.
Republicans like Mackowiak also insist that the Romney campaign is in perfectly good shape, having kept the election reasonably close even amid the blitz of attacks on Romney’s personal finances and his work at the Bain Capital private equity firm.
“Obama used his biggest weapon, and it didn’t do much damage, and there is a cost associated with that,” he asserted.
Still, Mackowiak also added, somewhat wistfully, that “of course it would be great if we were ahead in every battleground state.”
Beattie, the Democratic pollster, made the same argument from the opposite perspective.
Yes, he said, there is a long way to go.
“But it’s better to be playing from in front than behind.”