Prior to the first Presidential debate Barack Obama seemed to have all the momentum in the race. His base was fired up according to polls, he had hefty leads in key swing states and the electoral advantages he enjoyed over Mitt Romney seemed insurmountable. How two weeks makes a difference in politics.
While Obama’s base does not seem to be affected by the debate independents in mass, according to some polls, have shifted to Romney. Republican enthusiasm has also picked up significantly. Most importantly, the advantages Obama seemed to enjoy in the electoral college have faded.
In 2004 George W. Bush won reelection with 286 electoral votes and 50.7% of the popular vote. However, he failed to make any traction in Midwestern states that have voted Democratic consistently starting since 1992 or earlier (MN, MI, PA, WI). These states are often considered the Democratic firewall. Everytime the states look in play, as PA and WI did in 2004, they revert to form and back the Democratic nominee for President?
So what has changed in these states in the last two weeks to perhaps put them back in play this cycle? The polls and on the ground evidence of rising GOP enthusiasm and shifting voter preferences. Prior to the first Presidential debate Barack Obama seemed to have MI, WI, PA and MN in the bag. Now, according to RCP’s average of polls in the states, he only has MN in the bag. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are again rated as toss-ups by RCP and far more importantly for the Romney campaign they have made serious inroads into Ohio, which looked increasingly like a Obama state this year.
In Michigan the President now only leads by 4.4 points. Prior to the debate the President was approaching a double-digit average lead in the state. Michigan has many built-in Democratic advantages in presidential cycles. A left leaning suburban electorate and heavily minority Detroit electorate usually ensure them victory in even good GOP years (2004). But in 2010 the GOP was able to turn the state’s suburban electorate right and there is some evidence that electorate is still leaning that way this cycle. Even so, Romney will need strong rural support to pull off an upset in the state.
In Wisconsin, a GOP target state since 2000, the President’s lead has been deeply cut into. Prior to the debate he was threatening to run away with the race. But since then the President’s lead has virtually disappeared and he only leads by 2.3%. Wisconsin is unusual in that it has a highly conservative suburban vote and a moderate Democratic leaning rural vote. In the 2012 gubernatorial recall this dynamic was on display. For Romney to capture Wisconsin he needs to get every vote he can out of the suburbs and win moderate rural voters.
Much as Wisconsin has been a target state for the GOP in recent presidential elections so has Pennsylvania. In many ways PA mirrors Michigan in where its electorate’s allegiances lie. Urban Philly is like urban Detroit. Suburban Philly is like suburban Detroit and rural Pennsylvania is a near perfect image of rural Michigan. In the RCP average Obama leads in the state by 4.5%. Obama’s advantage in the state runs deep as he has a formidable ground operation and urban Philly provides him quite a deep vote cushion. The Romney camp counters that if they can turn suburban voters their way and win traditionally Democratic white voters in the Southwest of the state they can off-set Obama’s advantages. We will see.
Obama’s firewall is by no means collapsing. But it is showing signs of strain. Other non firewall, swing states such as VA, FL and yes even OH have begun to swing Romney’s way in the last few weeks. In the West CO and NV has seen significant movement to Romney’s side. If Obama starts losing WI, PA or MI in the polls leading up to election day it is a sign his reelection campaign is poised on a knife-edge November 6th.