With less than eight weeks before the election, the extremist attack in Benghazi, Libya has assumed center stage for one of those weeks. This is a terrible moment for the family members of those killed, and for the United States.
For Team Romney, it is also bad. For starters, foreign policy is no longer considered by the public to be a Republican strength. Worse, the Romney campaign’s coordinated response has been to attack the President with a false statement, even as the extremists were acting. This has been widely seen as a destructive act at a time of crisis. From a campaign standpoint, Romney’s actions are not so much a mistake as a recognition that he gets seven news cycles – and in some sense, seven more chances – to change the story.
State and national polls will not tell us the effect of Benghazi on the race. Any effect would overlap with the post-DNC bounce. I am reminded of the first Obama-McCain debate, which appeared to be good for Obama, but also came on the heels of the Lehman Brothers collapse on 09/15/2008. Truly the wind was at his back.
In my view, this Hail Mary pass won’t be Romney’s ticket.
Today let’s look at what would have to happen for Romney to come back and win – and conversely, the electoral limits of how high Obama can get.
As I have pointed out before, voters this year seem quite polarized. In the Meta-analysis, the swings in the Meta-margin could be accounted for by as few as 2% of voters changing their minds. This is about half the number that I saw in 2008.
This is consistent with an unusual RAND survey, the Continuous 2012 Presidential Election Poll, in which the same respondents were polled, over and over. This allows shifts between candidates to be quantified:
In any given week, the sum of the red and blue curves is typically around 2.0%. However, Obama’s Popular Vote Meta-margin range is 1-5%, suggesting that even if all of the “persuadable decideds” went to Romney, Obama would still be ahead by 1%.
Who’s left? “Undecided” voters. On another day, I’ll write about the neuroscience of how they might not really be undecided, as I did in this 2008 NYT piece. For now, let’s take them at their word, and assume they could go either way.
In recent national surveys, a median of 4% (n=9) of voters report being undecided. Imagine if they all swung to Romney, and he got the existing persuadable-decideds too. Conversely, imagine if Obama got all the undecideds and persuadable-decideds. This leads to the following range, more or less:
(True geeks: pardon the graph not matching the Meta-margin! It has to do with error bars. I will fix this by and by.)
Romney could get over the top by getting all the persuadable-decideds plus wooing “undecideds” by a ratio of about 3:1. This is a very steep hill to climb. But it is Romney’s only chance.
I do not think this is going to happen. In 2004, I made a prediction error by supposing that undecideds break toward the challenger in a 2:1 ratio, and concluding that John Kerry would win. Of course, I was wrong. That year, the result was consistent with a 50-50 split of undecideds. Since then, I have simply left out undecideds from the calculation, which is equivalent to a 50-50 split.
What’s the converse possibility, i.e. what is Obama’s ceiling? The realistic maximum outcome seems to be Obama 347 EV, Romney 191 EV. If it goes any higher, it will indicate an unusually big break toward Obama.
Thanks to commenters Olav Grinde for pointing out the RAND study and Brian J. Cohen for discussion.