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Obama's Surprising Blue State Problem

Obama's winning blue states by smaller margins than in '08 -- and could be elected while losing the popular vote
 
 
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There’s a real chance, as you’ve probably heard, that there’ll be a split popular vote/Electoral College decision on November 6.

As of this writing, the  Real Clear Politics polling average has Mitt Romney leading by 0.7 points in the national horserace, while HuffPost Pollster puts the GOP nominee up by 0.4. The electoral map is more decisive, though, at least for now, with Obama ahead in all of his must-win states, and well-positioned to pick off a couple of Romney’s. If the election were held this minute, the odds are very good that Obama would win the Electoral College, and decent that he’d lose the popular vote.

This would officially be the fifth time in history this has happened, after 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000 (although Sean Trende made  a strong case last week that it also happened in 1960). The question is where the disconnect is coming from – why is Obama apparently performing better in swing states than he is elsewhere?

Many reflexively argue that this is a product of Southern and Appalachian antipathy toward the president. He’s faring so terribly in these areas, the logic goes, that it’s dragging down his standing in the national polls (and elevating Romney’s) by a point or two.

On the surface, this makes sense. In a wide swath of territory extending from Oklahoma up through West Virginia, Obama actually found himself  losing dozens of rural counties to fringe challengers in this year’s Democratic primaries – something that didn’t happen outside that region. So if he’s facing that much Southern/Appalachian trouble within his own party, then imagine how bad is plight is with all voters there. Obama’s campaign itself made this argument a few months ago, as  John Heilemann relayedback in the spring:

[Obama campaign manager Jim Messina] doesn’t give a whit about national polling, in which Obama’s numbers are dragged down by his horrific performance in the Deep South and Appalachia – but is obsessed with the president’s standing in battleground states.

This view was reinforced a few weeks ago when Markos Moulitsas  flagged regional subsample data from Gallup’s weekly poll which showed Obama running 4-6 points ahead in the East, Midwest and West – and 22 points behind in the South.  So that settles it, right?

Actually, no.

First, as Nate Cohn  has documented, the Gallup regional numbers are at odds with what most other pollsters are finding. In six other national polls, Obama trailed in the South on average by 7.5 points, which is actually a tick better than the nine-point loss he suffered in the region to John  McCain four years ago. Of course, take all of this with a grain of salt; the polls that this data was drawn from are national in nature and aren’t necessarily designed to show the state of the race region by region.

Still, when you think about it, it makes sense that the South/Appalachia wouldn’t really be Obama’s trouble spot, because it’s an area that never liked him to begin with. Don’t forget, this is the part of the country where in many counties Obama actually fared worse in 2008 than John Kerry did in 2004. Even before his popularity began dropping with voters elsewhere, voters in this area had already turned on him. So while he’s not doing well in the South, he’s probably not doing that much worse than he did in ’08.

Patrick Murray, who runs the Monmouth University poll, suggests that a more helpful way of understanding why Obama’s national support is lagging is to divide the country into three types of states – red, blue, and competitive – and to compare Obama’s showing in these states to how he’s doing now. Using the ’08 results and Monmouth’s latest numbers, here’s what Murray came up with:

 
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