Pre-debate national polling this week showed a close race between President Obama and Mitt Romney, with Obama leading slightly in most surveys.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News nationwide poll showed Obama leading 49 percent to 46 percent among likely voters, down from a 5 percentage-point lead in September, just after the political conventions ended.
A new United Technologies/National Journal poll showed a dead heat, with Obama and Romney each pulling in 47 percent of likely voters.
But at this point in the presidential race, such national samplings are useless. Yes, they take the temperature of the nation as a whole. But presidential elections aren’t decided by the overall popular vote. If that were so, the candidates would be pounding away at each other in the dozen or so largest media markets in the country.
Under the Electoral College system, attention in the final weeks of the campaign will be focused on a dozen or so states where the presidential race is a tossup or very close. The Electoral College is a state-by-state, winner-take-all system. The candidate who wins Ohio, even by one vote, gets all 18 electoral votes.
So the number that really matters is not the overall popular vote, but who can get to 270 electoral votes.
The web site RealClearPolitics rates just seven states as tossups. Ohio is now in the “leans Democratic” column, the web site’s average of statewide polls showing Obama with a 5.5- percentage point lead. Two recent statewide polls have found Obama with leads of 8 percentage points and 9 percentage points.
Still, it’s unlikely the Romney campaign will shift resources out of Ohio. That’s because he has fewer electoral votes locked up than does Obama. By RealClearPolitics’ calculation, if Romney won all the tossup states, getting 88 electoral votes, he would have 269, a tie with Obama.
It isn’t necessarily fair that Ohio gets so much attention every four years. Big states such as California and New York are routinely written off by Republicans, and Texas is summarily dismissed by Democrats, with the exception of fundraisers to put more fuel in the tank to fly to Ohio.
But that’s the way it is under the system the Founding Fathers designed as a compromise between directly electing the president and having Congress make the selection.
What can Ohioans expect to gain from all the attention, the candidates and their surrogates crisscrossing the state, television ads saturating the airwaves, phones ringing and literature dropping?
Certainly, the focus on jobs and the economy reflects the traditional concern of Ohio voters with bread-and-butter issues rather than ideological agendas.
That said, if Obama wins Ohio and captures a second term, he would almost certainly face a hostile congressional delegation from the state, blunting his ability to move forward with the kind of economic agenda that a majority of Ohio voters, it must be presumed, backed in the same election.
That’s because of another anomaly embedded in the political structure, Ohio’s rules for drawing congressional districts. Because the GOP controls the Ohio General Assembly, it drew new congressional districts gerrymandered to favor Republicans. Many observers feel the redistricting was the most outrageous display of raw partisanship in decades.
Even with Obama’s lead in the polls, and incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown ahead of his Republican challenger, state Treasurer Josh Mandel, in the U.S. Senate race, Republicans have a good chance of winning 12 of the 16 districts redrawn after the 2010 census.
Ohio voters do have a history of ticket-splitting, but not one that can explain such a wide discrepancy in results from the same election. (A constitutional amendment to change how redistricting is done is on the Nov. 6 ballot, but its fate is uncertain. Even if it passes, districts would not change until 2014.)
An Obama victory in Ohio, when combined with GOP wins in U.S. House districts, would mean more gridlock in Washington, giving Ohioans a headache after the Election Day parties are over.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.