Battleground state polls: Are there any positives for Mitt Romney?

Curiously, the polls of battleground states show President Obama leading Mitt Romney by wider margins than do national polls. The question of which are more accurate could be crucial.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney boards his campaign charter plane in West Palm Beach, Fla., Friday.

There are a bunch of new battleground state polls in the news Friday morning, and at first glance they don’t look good for Mitt Romney.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll surveyed Wisconsin, Colorado, and Iowa for instance, and found President Obama ahead among likely voters in all three. And the leads aren’t margin-of-error stuff – Mr. Obama’s up by 5 points in Wisconsin, 5 points in Colorado, and 8 points in the Hawkeye State.

In Nevada, Obama’s up by 3 points, 49 to 46 percent, according to a recent CNN/ORC International survey. And in Michigan the margin is 9 points, 39 to 30 percent. (Thirty percent of likely voters in Mr. Romney’s home state remain undecided though, so there’s still room for that to change.)

At second glance these results still don’t look good for Romney. It’s not just the margins in these particular surveys – it’s the trend in key swing states as well. There have been 21 polls conducted in the 10 most important battleground states since the end of the Democratic convention, notes New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver Friday, and Obama has led all.

“On average, he has held a six-point lead in these surveys, and he has had close to 50 percent of the vote in them,” writes Mr. Silver on his FiveThirtyEight blog.

But here’s what we find interesting – national polls currently show a closer race. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls has Obama up by only 3.5 points, 48.4 to 44.9. And one of the largest, most professional surveys included in this average, Gallup’s daily tracking poll, on Thursday had Obama and Romney tied at 47 to 47 percent.

Since when have battleground states been less of a battleground than the nation as a whole?

We’ll examine the two possibilities:

THE STATE POLLS ARE RIGHT. It’s possible that the state polls are out in front and the national surveys just haven’t caught up to them yet. As Silver points out, the state surveys mentioned have generally been good ones that call cell phone numbers as well as landlines. RCP’s rolling average includes some polls conducted some time ago; most of the state polls are new, and may better reflect the political implications of recent events such as the conventions, attacks on US interests in the Middle East, and release of the secret video of Romney speaking at a fundraiser.

It’s also possible the state polls show the effects of the presidential campaigns. Both the Obama and Romney teams focus their money, time, and ads on battleground states, to the exclusion of others. If one side’s effort is more effective than that of the other, it might show disproportionate results in key places.  

THE NATIONAL POLLS ARE RIGHT. But look, you can’t just dismiss the full-USA surveys. They’re larger and tend to be perhaps more professionally run. “Larger” in this sense also can mean a larger pool of respondents, which aids accuracy. That might be the reason why Gallup, for instance, shows a different result.

Of course, Romney’s behind in national surveys, too. He just has a smaller margin to make up. His real problem is that it’s possible to win the national vote and lose the election. (Remember 2000?) The real path to victory is through the battlegrounds, where candidates try to put together state-by-state victories that lead them to the magical number of 270 electoral votes.

And time is ticking by. North Carolina has mailed out absentee ballots. Early voting starts Friday in South Dakota and Idaho. The election is in 46 days. Romney announced his choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as running mate 41 days ago. As a ticket, their campaign is now about half-run.

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