Why Wisconsin Could Be the Key to a Romney Victory

Two weeks after the first presidential debate and on the eve of the second, it is clear that Mitt Romney’s surge is more than an evanescent bump. He has moved into the lead in the national poll of polls (something John Kerry never quite managed despite his victory in the first 2004 debate), and a number of swing states have shifted in his direction. This 2012 election is now in the zone where the Electoral College comes into play. So let’s look at where the race stands from that perspective.

To begin, the change in the national averages has not significantly expanded the number of states in play this year. The reason is partisan polarization, which is not confined to congressional districts but has come to affect the states as well.

To see this, compare two elections—separated by four decades—in which the national popular vote margin was less than one percent. In the election of 1960, full 37 states yielded results within 5 points of the national result. In 2000, by contrast, only 21 states ended up within that range. For the most part, the red states have become redder, the blue states bluer. So Romney’s gains have not brought many new states into the zone where he might have a chance to prevail.

A reasonable rule of thumb is that if Romney’s deficit in a state is not within the margin of error at what may well be his post-debate apogee, and if no poll has put him in the lead, a major investment of candidate time and campaign money is likely to be wasted. By that standard, neither Michigan nor Pennsylvania qualifies as a new investment opportunity; the expected return-on-investment is low. The Romney campaign can afford to make those investments only if it’s flush with cash (which it doesn’t seem to be) and wants to make the Obama campaign take out an expensive insurance policy.

If Michigan and Pennsylvania are still in the bank for Obama, the president can count on 237 electoral votes. On the other side of the ledger, two states—Florida and North Carolina—have shifted toward Romney. In both states, Romney leads in the averages and in the majority of post-debate surveys. And in both, Obama’s margin of victory in 2008 was substantially below his national margin (4.5 points in Florida, 7.0 in North Carolina.) Putting those two states in Romney’s column gives him 235. So three weeks before election day, the electoral college race is essentially tied. Now what?

Ohio and Virginia are in the vortex, of course. While Obama clings to a narrow lead in the poll of polls, Romney has led in three out of eight post-debate surveys in Ohio and in three of five in Virginia. In each, moreover, Obama’s 2008 margin of victory was less than his national margin (by 1.0 points in Virginia and by 2.7 in Ohio).

While it’s possible that Romney will win both Ohio and Virginia, he’d be foolish to count on it. According to the latest CBS/NYT/Quinnipiac poll, Obama’s job approval in Virginia stands at 52 percent. And Obama has been consistently outperforming in Ohio. It’s usually about 1.5 points more Republican than the country as a whole; but right now, it’s 2 points more Democratic than the country.

As I and others have repeated ad nauseam, no Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio, and it seems very unlikely that Romney will be the first. But if experienced observers such as Joe Klein are right, the auto bailout is having more effect—economic and political–in Ohio than anywhere else.

Which brings us to Wisconsin, the only state that Romney’s surge has truly moved into the swing category. Not only have the post-debate surveys shown Obama’s margin down to 2 points, but also, the same survey that gave Obama a 52 percent approval rating in Virginia put him at 47 in Wisconsin.

History suggests that if vice-presidential candidates matter anywhere, it’s in their home states. If I were Romney’s campaign manager, I would tell Ryan to spend most of the next three weeks—morning, noon, and night—visiting every city, town, and hamlet in Wisconsin. And if my internal polls had Obama’s margin down to (say) one point with three or four days until the election, I would schedule one or two big Romney rallies to maximize enthusiasm and turnout.

Wisconsin matters because it could reduce the pressure on Romney to draw to an inside straight. Carrying Wisconsin wouldn’t fully compensate for losing Ohio, of course. But added to Romney’s base of 235 electoral votes, Wisconsin plus Virginia would bring him to 258, at which point Colorado plus any one of the three smallest swing states—New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada—would put him over the top. So would winning Iowa and Nevada, even without Colorado.

By the same token, while carrying Wisconsin wouldn’t quite compensate for losing Virginia, winning Ohio plus Wisconsin would give Romney 263 electoral votes, at which point either Colorado or any two of the remaining smaller states would yield victory.

The bottom line is this: if Romney wins any two of three large swing states—Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin—he has a real shot at winning an Electoral College majority. If he wins only one, the odds lengthen—even if the one he wins is the largest, Ohio, with 18 electoral votes.

We’ll soon find out whether the Romney campaign agrees with this logic and ramps up its efforts in Wisconsin. So watch Paul Ryan’s travel schedule, and the campaign’s advertising buys.