Obama’s Battleground Advantage

Unbeknown to Rick Santorum and his campaign team, the GOP nominating contest is effectively over. There is a small chance that Santorum could spring an upset in Wisconsin’s primary Tuesday, since he has over-performed compared to his poll standing a few times, but  even if he does, Mitt Romney will still likely win more delegates that day by cruising to victory in the Maryland and Washington, D.C., primaries.

A Wisconsin win for Santorum would mean only one thing: that his delusions of becoming the eventual nominee will continue a bit longer, and he will force Mitt Romney to spend more time and money  fighting to win primaries, giving the incumbent more of a head-start in fighting the fall campaign.

In the past few weeks there have been a slew of polls in battleground states, pitting Romney versus Obama.  In general, Obama has performed better in the state polls than he has in the head-to-head national polls versus Romney. With the exception  of one recent CNN poll, most of the national surveys have shown Obama with a national lead over Romney that is smaller than Obama’s margin over John McCain in 2008 (7.2%).

There is one important reason for Obama’s early lead in the most competitive states. Just as in 2008, the Obama campaign team has invested heavily in ground operations in the battleground states. With no primary opponent , the Obama campaign team has used its money haul, which so far has been somewhat less than anticipated despite a record number of fundraisers attended by the president, to establish multiple campaign offices in states such as Virginia and Ohio, recruit both paid and volunteer staff, and begin direct contacts with voters many months before the November election. In 2008, the Obama ground operation swamped the McCain effort, and there is a chance for more of the same this time around.

Most analysts expect  that the 2012 race will be more like the 2004 election than the 2008 race, which became a decisive win for Obama after the financial collapse of Lehman Brothers in mid-September 2008. In 2004, George W. Bush won 31 states and 286 Electoral College votes. The states Bush won now contain 292 Electoral  College votes due to the every-ten-years Congressional redistricting process among the states. In 2008, the Obama campaign targeted ten of the Bush states from 2004  and won all but one of them -- Missouri -- which McCain won by 4,000 votes. Five of the Obama pickups were narrower victories than his general election margin -- North Carolina, 15 Electoral College votes  (0.3% margin); Indiana, 11 Electoral College votes (1% margin);  Florida, 29 Electoral College votes  (2.8% margin); Ohio, 18 Electoral College votes (4.7% margin); and Virginia, 13 Electoral College votes (6.3% margin). The other four pickups were more decisive -- Iowa (9%), Colorado (9%), Nevada (12%), New Mexico (15%).

Given the growth in the Hispanic percentage of all voters  in some of the western states -- especially Colorado (9 Electoral College votes), Nevada (6 Electoral College votes), and New Mexico (5 Electoral College votes), Romney could not afford to lose any of the other battleground states that Bush won in 2004, if he lost all three of these western states. This is one of the reasons that there is speculation Romney might select an Hispanic to be his running mate (Florida Senator Marco Rubio or New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez).

Of course, there is the possibility that Romney could win a  “blue state” that John Kerry won in 2004, which would give him a bit more of a cushion to fall short in one or more of the other  battleground states Bush won in 2004. The best chances here would seem to be Pennsylvania, 20 Electoral College votes (a 10% Obama win in 2008); and New Hampshire, 4  Electoral College votes (a 9% Obama win in 2008). While some GOP pundits consider Wisconsin, 10 Electoral  College votes,  a tossup (a 13% Obama win in 2008), the GOP energy in this state seems directed at retaining Governor Scott Walker in the June recall election, and head-to-head polls between Obama and Romney give the president a big edge.

Recent polls suggest that President Obama holds about a 7 point lead over Romney in Ohio, Florida, and Virginia, and a 3 point lead over Romney in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.  The Pennsylvania poll is  an oddity, since it showed Romney doing better than Santorum versus Obama in Santorum’s state, as well as for the fact that Romney ran better against Obama in Pennsylvania than in Florida or Ohio, states that in recent presidential elections have been at least  5% more friendly to Republican candidates than Pennsylvania.