Published November 5, 2012
In ten days, Breaking Dawn, the final installment in the Twilight movie series, featuring Kristin Stewart, will come to our nation’s cineplexes. Millions of the series’ fans have passionately divided themselves into Team Edward and Team Jacob, arguing as to which prospective beau is better for their heroine. Next week, those who haven’t already read the books will finally learn whom Bella Swan will spend the rest of her unnatural life with. (Hint: It’s not the werewolf.) Tomorrow, the final installment in the reality series called America’s election season will be filmed. Tens of millions of Americans have divided themselves into Team Barack and Team Mitt, passionately arguing which prospective leader is better for our nation. But we have no book to read to discover who wins. Will we have twilight or breaking dawn?
Clearly, supporters of each candidate differ in their predictions. Followers of my writing know which team I am on. (Hint: It’s not the incumbent’s.) But I write as an analyst, not a partisan, and what follows is my best prediction of what will happen, why, and what factors need to transpire to prove me wrong.
My Final Answer
Obama: 49.39 percent; 303 EV
Romney: 48.24 percent; 235 EV
Third Parties: 2.37 percent
States Switching to Romney: Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Nebraska’s second district
States Switching to Obama: None
Senate: D: 52; R: 46; I:2
Seats Switching to Democrats: Maine (I), Indiana, Massachusetts
Seats Switching to Republicans: North Dakota, Nebraska
House: D: 197; R: 238 (+4 D)
Black and White
How did I sort through the polling cacophony to arrive at such precise numbers?
In one sense, I’ve offered a false sense of precision. All of the national polls and weighted averages of state polls have the race within the margin of error. Following that admonition to its logical conclusion would mean I have to call the race as “too close to call.”
But that is both cowardly and inaccurate. Someone has the edge, someone will win, and I need to make my best effort to find out who that someone is.
Pundits and analysts have sparred over the last week over which poll or set of polls to believe. Nate Silver has argued that taking the average of state polls, weighted by each state’s share of the population, provides a more accurate measure of the national picture than the national polls themselves. Republican-leaning analysts have argued that many of the national and state polls are distorted by including higher shares of Democrats versus Republicans in their polls than is warranted by our recent history.
This argument has serious consequences for who you think will win. The weighted state average of polls has been consistently slightly more favorable to Obama than the Real Clear Politics average of national polls. Those polls that show Democrats with only a small partisan edge tend to show Romney doing better, although that pattern has been less pronounced among polls in the last few days.
I could try to cut through this Gordian knot, but ultimately I decided to transcend the whole argument entirely. I am basing my forecast on a factor I believe to be much more stable and hence less subject to partisan shading or statistical variation: race.
I do this for three reasons. First, one’s race is largely not a matter of dispute. A poll respondent is highly likely to accurately give his race; his partisan inclination is less likely to be so firm. Second, the political views of whites and non-whites are sharply different — there are many white Democrats, but there are few non-white Republicans — so unless a subsample of whites or non-whites is unusually imbalanced, looking at race allows you to more accurately determine partisan breakdown.
Finally, I do this because it allows me to run through a series of alternative scenarios and estimate the break-even points for Romney and Obama in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. I provide a variety of options to analyze yourself, and you can see what will have to happen on Election Night for President Obama to win decisively or for Mitt Romney to win at all.
The table below shows the racial divisions for each of the last six national polls to make those breakdowns publicly available (Rasmussen’s are available only by subscription; Sunday’s Wall Street Journal poll’s crosstabs were not released as of this writing). As you can see, there is remarkable agreement among the polls as to where the race stands by race.
If you average the share of the white vote for each candidate, you get Romney taking roughly 56.5 percent of the white vote, Obama taking 39 percent, and 4.5 percent either undecided or supporting third parties. For non-whites I averaged the last three polls, as they are both similar to one another and only slightly different from the 2008 non-white vote breakdown according to the exit polls. That shows Obama leading among non-whites by 77 to 20 percent.
To estimate the popular-vote totals, I then need to do two things. First, I need to know what share whites and non-whites will each have in the electorate. In most cases the pollster provided that information, but where it was not provided, I could derive the totals through interpolation. Whites plus non-whites must equal 100 percent of the sample, and since I know what share of each group each candidate takes, I can use middle-school algebra to determine the shares of whites and non-whites in the electorate. That table is presented below.
You again see remarkable similarity. If you average these together, you get a rough estimate of 74 percent white, 26 percent non-white. This is identical to the 74–26 breakdown in 2008, and much more non-white than the 76–24 breakdown in 2010.
Finally, I need to estimate what share of the vote each candidate will get among whites and non-whites after undecided voters have made up their minds. I assume third-party candidates will receive about 2.5 percent among whites and 2 percent among non-whites, for a total of 2.33 percent overall. I then allocate 60 percent of the remaining undecideds to Romney in each group. That means my calculations are based on the assumption that Romney will beat Obama by 57.7 to 39.8 percent among whites, and that Obama will beat Romney by 77.4 to 20.6 percent among non-whites.
My final prediction is based on applying those percentages to a 74.5–25.5 white/non-white breakdown, a slightly more optimistic forecast for Governor Romney. I did that because most polls’ unweighted samples have produced a much higher white share of the electorate than the average based on self-reported voter enthusiasm and other factors. Many observers have argued that these measures tend to undercount non-white voters as a share of the likely voter sample; I decided to slightly reduce the non-white share of the electorate from my rough estimate to account for the likelihood that white turnout will be slightly higher than the pollsters’ estimate.
As you have probably surmised, this conclusion is extremely sensitive to changes in assumptions regarding white and non-white voters. So I asked my research assistant, Brad Wassink, to create multiple scenarios based on different assumptions. I asked him to run every possible scenario assuming that Romney’s share of the white vote went from 57.5 percent up to 59 percent, and with his share of the non-white vote ranging from 18 to 20 percent. (I did this on Sunday afternoon before the latest polls were released, and those polls showed Romney getting larger shares of the non-white vote.) I also asked him to run each of these scenarios with Romney’s share of the white vote going as low as 73.5 percent and as high as 76 percent.
Here’s the gist of his findings: Romney cannot win the popular vote unless he takes a minimum of 58.66 percent of the white vote and 20 percent of the non-white vote and whites are 74 percent of the electorate. His chances for victory increase the higher the share whites are in the electorate, such that at the 76 percent level, Romney wins the popular vote if he takes 58.66 percent of the white vote, so long as he takes 18 percent of the non-white vote (McCain’s level).
Brad created 150 scenarios; Romney wins the popular vote in only 33 of them. But even this masks how hard it is for Romney to win the presidency. For reasons I explain later, Romney has to win the popular vote by a minimum of 1 percentage point to have a chance of winning the Electoral College. Romney’s margin exceeds 1 percentage point in only six of those 150 scenarios.
It’s not that Romney can’t win; it’s that he’s highly unlikely to do so without getting the highest share of the white vote for a Republican since 1988 and facing the whitest electorate since 2004 unless he has substantially improved his standing with Hispanics relative to McCain’s. But there is precious little evidence that is happening. The 2008 exit poll showed McCain getting 31 percent of the Hispanic vote; a Fox special poll of Hispanic likely voters released last week showed Obama leading by 77–19. In the absence of instant “self-deportation,” Romney is likely to at best replicate McCain’s total among Hispanics and thus is exclusively reliant on the white vote to win.
And Blue All Over
Now, it’s not as if Republicans have never received 60 percent or more of the white vote. GOP candidates have done that three times in the last 40 years — 1972 (68 percent), 1984 (64 percent), and 1988 (60 percent). When they did that, they carried the midwestern battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan. So Romney’s path is clear: Break the 60 percent hurdle and victory — popular and electoral — is assured.
The problem with that is the type of white voter he needs to win to get there. Republican candidates break the 60 percent barrier only when they do well among midwestern and northeastern Catholic and Lutheran blue-collar voters, many of whom belong to a union or come from a union heritage. These white, working-class voters have so far been resistant to Romney’s charm in both the Republican primaries (areas dominated by these voters tended to vote for Santorum) and in all of the midwestern state polls to date. Without them, Romney cannot win the election.
The data from Ohio are particularly poignant. Racial breakdowns are available in five recent polls, and Romney receives between 50 and 53 percent of whites in all of them. Whites will likely comprise 83 to 85 percent of the Buckeye State’s electorate, but in order to win, Romney needs at least 56 percent of their votes. He’s not getting it, and in large measure it’s because he’s not persuading blue-collar whites. Nationally Romney, like most Republicans, runs stronger among whites without a college degree than among those with a college education, but not in Ohio. There, according to the CBS/Quinnipiac poll, he’s running five points worse among the white working class than among college-degreed whites.
It’s not that midwestern blue-collar whites won’t vote for a Republican. In 2010, they provided the margin for Scott Walker and tossed out at least six incumbent Democratic congressmen. But they aren’t naturally Republicans, and they certainly are not attracted to an economic message that they interpret as giving more power to management.
The Romney campaign seemed to assume that the religious-freedom issue would trump economics and bring midwestern Catholics to his cause. But that view relied on two fundamental misunderstandings of the Catholic vote. First, about half of all Catholics do not regularly attend Mass. For those voters, there was little to no appeal to this issue, especially since the act that created the religious-freedom issue — Obama’s contraception mandate — touches on the distance between the Church’s teachings and modern social life. Many non-practicing Catholics left the Church precisely because they believe the Church they love is out of touch with the times on non-core issues; they would be annoyed or repelled by the Romney campaign’s argument.
The second flawed assumption rests on the relation of the churchgoing Catholic to the bishops. Most Catholics today do not revere their parish priests as godly representatives, nor do they wait for the latest pronouncement from Rome. Even the faithful sitting in the pews regularly disregard the Church’s teachings on contraception and sex. To presume, as the Romney campaign often seemed to, that modern Catholic life was unchanged from the days of the Bells of St. Mary’s was a fundamental error and a grave political sin. This issue did help on the margins, but by no means did it produce the large swing among midwestern and northeastern Catholics the campaign thought it would.
I’ve written at length about the challenge Republicans face in attracting blue-collar non-Evangelicals and how they should respond. A message that emphasizes the role government can play in helping average people advance rather than one that emphasizes naked market forces automatically lifting all boats will resonate with both white and Hispanic non-Evangelical voters. But that is not the path Romney chose.
Death of a Salesman
I’m pretty sure both campaigns have come to the same conclusions based on the travel schedules in the last week. Romney has crisscrossed the country but has mainly stayed in the suburbs or major metro areas. In Ohio, he’s stayed in the Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati markets — Obama made a trip to the automobile-industry (and GOP-leaning) heartland in northwestern Ohio, but Romney steered clear. Ryan is handling the trips to blue-collar Youngstown and the rural areas. In Pennsylvania Romney is touching down in suburban Bucks County and Ryan held a rally in the GOP heartland of central Pennsylvania; neither will visit the state’s second-largest media market, heavily blue-collar Pittsburgh. You would never know Wisconsin is in play by Romney’s schedule — one trip to suburban Milwaukee and done. Romney political director Rich Beeson told Politico last week that Paul Ryan would bring home blue-collar Wisconsinites, and so it was Ryan who made the trek alone last week to Walker Democrat country in the western and southern parts of the state.
Romney did go to two blue-collar regions, eastern Iowa and southwestern Virginia. The latter move, however, is one of weakness, not strength. This area should be Romney country, and he will need margins of 30 percent or more from there to have a chance of carrying Virginia. But minor-party candidate Virgil Goode represented much of this area in Congress for over a decade, and with polls showing Virginia a toss-up, even a small vote for the conservative Goode could cost Romney the state.
President Obama’s schedule, in contrast, shows he thinks he has the lead in the Midwest because of blue-collar voters, and he plans to keep them. He has been in Ohio three separate days, including an entire day in the northwest, and Vice President Joe Biden has virtually lived there. When Biden isn’t in Ohio he’s mainly been in blue-collar areas in Iowa and Wisconsin, and former President Bill Clinton has also been deployed in those regions. President Obama has also traveled twice to Wisconsin and Iowa, and not just to Milwaukee and Des Moines.
The chart at left starkly portrays Romney’s dilemma. It shows the Republican share of the white vote nationally and in the three key midwestern states over the last three elections. Romney needs the gap between the national and state-level white vote to shrink to have any hope of carrying these states, but instead it has remained stable or grown. That’s his blue-collar problem in a nutshell.
The Electoral College
Romney’s challenge is multiplied because of the changing Electoral College dynamics. As the Republican base has grown more southern and Evangelical, states that hold smaller shares of those voters have become harder to take. Nationally Romney needs a shift of about 3.7 percentage points from 2008 to win narrowly, but he needs a shift of 4.8 percentage points to win enough states to win the Electoral College. That means he has to win the national popular vote by between 1 and 2 percent. And that assumes that Ohio sticks to its multi-decade pattern of slightly tilting toward the Republicans. If current state polls are correct, Ohio is neutral at best and likely now leans very slightly to the Democrats.
If I am right and Obama wins by about a point and change, Romney will definitely win all the McCain states plus Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, and the single vote from Nebraska’s second congressional district. Colorado and Virginia will be extremely close, but given that both states have shown a four-election trend away from Republicans such that Colorado now leans slightly Democratic and Virginia is neutral, I believe both will narrowly go for the president.
The other swing states — Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin — will be decided by the Catholic and Lutheran blue-collar vote. Failure to break through here will cost Romney these states.
Minnesota and Pennsylvania, the two latest states to appear on the Romney radar, will also fail to move. The Catholic and Lutheran votes are also key to these states, they both are historically slightly more Democratic that the four states listed above, and there is no consistent evidence that anything has changed. I suspect the last-minute advertising and visits to those states by Romney and Ryan is a reflection that with one week to go, they needed to do the political equivalent of throwing into deep coverage. Like most such efforts, their drive will probably fall short.
Sunlight at Dusk
I started this analysis by asking if conservatives faced twilight or dawn. I’ve shown how Wednesday could be a bright morning, but it is likely to bring twilight. But twilight is found twice a day, so conservatives, like Benjamin Franklin at the dawn of America, must ask themselves if we face a rising or a setting sun.
Win or lose, we are in the twilight of the Age of Reagan. Romney’s efforts have almost recreated the Reagan coalition, but in today’s America that is no longer enough. To prevail in 2014 and beyond, the Republican party will need to learn to adapt its principles to new times and new voters.
Echoing Rabbi Hillel, Reagan summoned conservatives to action with two related questions: If not us, who? If not now, when? We must take on this challenge anew as we undertake our rendezvous with destiny and remake the conservative majority Reagan bequeathed to us.
To do that, we must also ask and answer two other questions. If we didn’t, why? If we must, how? I believe we can and will answer these questions, as painful as the discussion amongst us will be at times, and I believe that regardless of what happens tomorrow, the American sun will rise and set with conservatism. For there is nothing wrong with conservatism that reapplication of conservative principles won’t solve, and there is nothing wrong with America that rededication to conservative principles won’t cure.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.