As Mitt Romney rose in the polls against President Barack Obama following the first presidential debate, the media quickly grabbed onto a new narrative: the Romney comeback. While ignoring the political science that says bounces in polls after debates typically recede, the media said the presidential race was now a “horse race” because Romney and Obama looked a lot more even in national polls and those in the swing states of Colorado, Virginia and Florida.
But the media seemed to ignore one key swing state: Ohio. Even at the peak of his post-debate bounce, Romney was still behind 0.7 points to Obama in Ohio on Real Clear Politics, a website that averages out all polling data. On Oct. 15 — the Monday before the second debate — Obama was up 2.2 points in Ohio with a poll from Public Policy Polling showing Obama ahead by five points and a poll from NBC, The Wall Street Journal and Marist showing Obama ahead by six points.
To an outsider, these leads and emphasis on Ohio might seem strange. Out of all 50 states, why should one matter so much, and why would a relatively small lead in Ohio be such a big deal? But those who recall the 2000 presidential election also probably remember our country’s collective crash course in Electoral College 101.
A brief reminder: The U.S. does not rely on a popular vote for electing its presidents. Instead, each state is assigned points in the Electoral College based on its population. Getting 270 of these points is how a candidate becomes president. With the exceptions of Maine and Nebraska, if a candidate wins the state’s popular vote, the candidate gets all of the state’s electoral votes.
This format can lead to situations like the 2000 presidential election. In that race, George Bush beat Al Gore in the Electoral College 271-266 but lost the popular vote 48.4-47.9.
Bush pulled this off by winning the swing state of Florida, netting him just enough points in the Electoral College to beat Al Gore by five. In other words, one state decided the entire election.
In the 2012 presidential election, it’s increasingly looking like Ohio will play the role of 2000’s Florida. To understand the math behind this, it’s important to know that most states are already set to go one way or the other, politically speaking. States like California and New York reliably go Democrat, while states like Texas and Georgia reliably go Republican. Most states fall into this category of reliably going one way or the other.
But candidates spend most of their time campaigning in swing states, which are much closer. Strategists pay close attention to which combinations of swing states they can win to reach an overall Electoral College majority, then host as many events as possible in the states they have a chance to swing. The states that are generally seen as swing states in 2012 are Ohio, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia and Wisconsin.
The way this year’s electoral map is set up gives Obama a sizable advantage. If Obama wins Ohio, he only needs two other swing states to win the election. In other words, if Obama wins Ohio, he could win the election by winning Wisconsin and Iowa — two swing states where Obama is very much favored, according to aggregate polling. He could then lose Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and Virginia. He would go 3-for-8 in swing states, but he would win the election.
Things look a bit murkier for Romney. Even if he wins Ohio, he will still need Florida, Virginia and one other state to win the election. Essentially, Romney has to win at least four of eight swing states for victory.
However, without Ohio, Romney’s chances for victory are greatly diminished. If Obama wins Ohio, Romney could win Florida, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada, which are all toss-ups in aggregate polling, and still need one more state. Considering Obama is polling quite favorably in the remaining swing states of Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire, that seems unlikely.
Basically, it looks like the election will come down to Ohio. And with Obama leading in the state even during Romney’s post-debate peak, the media narrative of the Romney comeback might not hold much truth in reality.
Still, the narrative holds true in the collective minds of Americans and the media. News outlets are already pondering what the narrative will be after the Oct. 16 presidential debate. Will Obama turn around the “Romney surge?” Will Romney keep his momentum?
Nevermind Obama’s steady advantage in Ohio or Oct. 15 poll numbers that show Obama already came back from some losses. We in the media have a dramatic narrative to tell.