Mitt Romney’s top staff offered reporters an endless number of reasons they’re going to beat President Obama on a conference call Wednesday. Not included on their list of Romney advantages: a clear lead in the polls.
“Obama has a political enviroment problem,” Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said. “He’s got an intensity problem, he’s got an image problem and he’s got a ballot problem — and they all add up to a challenging Tuesday next week.”
The call came as recent data shows Obama with a small, but persistent lead in enough states to win 270 electoral votes. Wednesday was a particularly rough day for Romney on that front, featuring new surveys in which Obama held a solid lead in Ohio, surged to an 8-point lead in Wisconsin, and even led by 5 nationally in one case. But Romney aides insisted things were on the right track.
“We feel we are in a very good place, that this race is exactly where we had hoped it would be a week out,” senior adviser Russ Schriefer said.
While the campaign never went so far as to say it held a lead in key states like Ohio, Wisconsin, or Nevada in public or internal polls, staffers pointed to various reasons they felt Obama still held a losing hand.
“Right now their firewall is burning,” political director Rich Beeson told reporters.
Many of the explanations offered were familiar. Obama has persistently lagged Romney among independents nationally and in Ohio, for example. While this has been an issue for Obama across the board, given that a huge number of GOP-leaning conservatives have renounced party identification over the last several years, it isn’t entirely unexpected. Simply put, the “independents” of 2012 are not the same voters who labeled themselves such in 2008 (and especially not the same as they were in 2004).
Another issue that was cited by Schriefer: Obama is “stuck well below the 50 percent threshold in almost every mark that you can take, whether it’s the national polls or whether it’s the state polls.”
Unfortunately for Romney, that may be changing too. Not only do a number of recent polls in all-important Ohio show Obama cracking 50 percent (two on Wednesday alone), but he’s at 49.2% in the TPM Polltracker Average — not exactly far off. Wisconsin (49.3%) and Nevada (50.3%), which combined would put Obama over the top with an Ohio victory, look pretty similar.
National polls are another story, with several daily trackers showing Romney leads, a number of others showing a tied race, and a few showing Obama leads. Average it out and you get a super tight race with Obama clinging to a small lead well within the margin of error, 48.4% to Romney’s 47.3%.
Schriefer described the contest overall as “a close race, as we’ve always thought it would be.” Newhouse called it a “very tight race that’s very far from being decided.”
But at the same time, they argued Romney had such momentum that he could threaten an electoral vote blowout that extends deep into Democratic territory. They pointed to recent ad buys by Romney and allies in a number of marginal blue states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota.
“Can we win all of them? Probably not,” Schriefer said. “Can we win some of them? I think so.”
Newhouse pulled the camera out to the bigger picture, even citing 2008 swing states like Indiana and Missouri, both long abandoned by both campaigns, as evidence of Romney’s overall strength.
“If we asked ourselves a year ago where this campaign would be and we said the Obama campaign was going to be defending in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and in Pennsylvania and in Michigan and they were goign to be more or less not playing in North Carolina and Indiana, which they won four years ago, in Missouri, where they came close, you would say that the Romney campaign was in a very good place,” he said.
The question is whether Romney’s last-minute incursion into new states is a sign of strength — and there have been at least some polls showing places like Minnesota and Michigan within single digits — or an acknowledgement that the path to victory through Ohio now looks untenable. The Romney campaign argues it’s the former, the Obama campaign says it’s the latter, though they’re not above contesting Romney with ad buys of their own.
But the Romney team’s lack of any clear polling advantage in the key states puts them in a tough spot. While the race remains extremely close, there’s been little movement since his initial first debate surge and time is running out fast. Polling analysts like Nate Silver, Sean Trende, and Nate Cohn suggest Romney may need state polls to be systematically wrong across the board for him to prevail at this point. That’s far from impossible, but it’s hard to imagine the Obama campaign would want to trade places right now.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.