Take Ohio's Obama-Romney polls with large grain of salt

Sep 30, 2012

Ok, raise your hands if you think that President Obama is 10 percentage points ahead of Republican Mitt Romney among voters in Ohio, right this very moment.

We’re willing to bet your hands are still on your keyboards.

But the CBS News/New York Times poll, conducted by Quinnipiac University, that came out this week does; it showed Obama with 53 percent support to 43 percent for Romney; and, what is more, showed Obama ahead by nine percentage points in Florida and a whopping 12 percentage points in Pennsylvania.

This made the universe of presidential politics sit up and take notice, mainly because of the fact that no president has been elected since 1960 without taking at least two or these three key states.

Now, raise your hand if you think Obama is 5.4 percentage points ahead of Romney in the Buckeye State?

Probably some hands in the air now.

That’s what Real Clear Politics (RCP) – a website that tracks political coverage and polling - came up with when they averaged out the seven most recent polls of Ohio voters – including the CBS News/New York Times poll.

That makes more sense.

There was something counter-intuitive – even for some Democrats - about a 10 percentage point lead at this stage of the game in a key battleground state like Ohio, where, four years ago, Obama won by a margin of 4.6 percentage points.

In presidential politics, when leads start creeping into double-digit territory, there are usually signs that the campaign that is leading is starting to scale back its operations in that state and shifting its resources to critical states where the polls are much closer.

Anybody notice any signs of the Obama-Biden campaign scaling back in Ohio?

We didn’t think so.

Over 100 Obama-Biden offices are up and running in Ohio, with thousands of campaign volunteers making phone calls and knocking on doors to roust voters and get them to the polls.

On Tuesday – the first day of early voting in Ohio – First Lady Michelle Obama, perhaps the best motivational speaker the Obama-Biden campaign has, is coming to Cincinnati for a rally aimed at firing up campaign volunteers to get people registered and to pump up the early vote.

And Thursday, the day after the first presidential debate in Denver, Obama himself is taking off from Colorado (itself a key battleground state) and heading to Virginia, another battleground state, and then back to Ohio Friday for rally in Cleveland.

You can rest assured that Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, won’t be far behind in high-tailing it to the Buckeye State.

All of which confirms what we already instinctively know – Ohio and its 18 electoral votes are still in play.
And the candidate who wins them will have a much easier path to the White House.

Democratic leaders insist that Obama will ultimately prevail in Ohio, just as he did four years ago. What they won’t tell you though is that it will be a blow-out.

“I am optimistic that President Obama will win Ohio,’’ said Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke. “I don’t know that it will be by 10 percent.”

Mack Mariani, assistant professor of political science and sociology at Xavier University, isn’t buying the idea that Obama holds a double-digit lead in Ohio with little more than five week to go before election day.

“I have a lot of trouble believing that,’’ Mariani said of the CBS News/New York Times Poll. “I can see (Obama) winning Ohio, yes. But the energy level on the Democratic side isn’t there the way it was four years ago."

Mariani said he saw more enthusiasm and more grassroots activity last year, when union and their Democratic allies (including the Obama political machine) were blanketing the state with their successful campaign to repeal  Senate Bill 5, which would have curtailed the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

“Four years ago, there was a tremendous turnout of African-American voters,’’ Mariani said. “But you can only elect the first black president once. I just don’t see the enthusiasm out there this time.”

Burke begs to differ.

The enthusiasm is there, Burke said, but it took longer to build  this year than it did four years ago, when the Democrats had a hard-fought primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“We did not have an exciting primary this time,’’ Burke said. “But the enthusiasm level is high and it is climbing. You can see it when you have hundreds of people turn out for the opening of a campaign office.”

The Republican state legislature’s attempts to shorten the 35-day early voting period and the limits that Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted put on early, in-person voting hours convinced many Democrats “that Republicans are trying to make it more difficult for Democrats – particularly African-Americans – to vote. And that is just making people more determined to vote.”

Mariani said that if you told him on the morning after the election that Ohio had gone to Obama by two or three percentage points or that Romney won Ohio by the same margin, “I could easily believe that.”

Ohio is not the kind of state that has blow-out presidential elections, at least not in recent years. It is neither blue nor red but purple when it comes to presidential elections.

Maybe the CBS News/New York Times poll is right on the money. Or not. And, as Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute said, Romney has a chance in the three upcoming debates to turn those polls around.

Perhaps, instead of being fixated with polls, we should watch what the candidates do.

When they stop crossing the border into Ohio, we can assume the race is over.

But no one really expects that to happen.