DAYTON, Ohio -- Nearly 4,000 people turned out Tuesday to cheer Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan at an airport rally here, their numbers and enthusiasm contradicting polls that show President Obama leading by a wide margin in the Buckeye State. This contradiction inspired me to conduct my own poll, although my methodology might not have been entirely scientific: I walked up to the crowd behind the barricade and shouted, "Does anybody here believe the polls?" The crowd shouted back in unison: "No!"
Perhaps my survey wasn't based on a random sample, but I'm pretty certain of the conclusion: Republicans here are profoundly skeptical of polls indicating Obama on the verge of walking away with Ohio's 18 Electoral College votes. Nor is this skepticism limited to Ohio. A website devoted to examining sources of bias in polls, UnskewedPolls.com, has become increasingly popular among Republicans. The site's proprietor Dean Chambers echoes many in pointing out how "the weighting and/or sampling of Democrats, Republicans and independents in each survey" can produce numbers wildly at variance with the likely results on Election Day. Many of the polls that show large advantages for Obama also show a "skew" in party identification toward Democrats -- over-representing them compared to their numbers in previous elections -- which can be "enough to make the results unreliable," as Ed Morrissey of HotAir.com says.
What causes conservatives to complain about these skewed polls is that so many journalists seem more interested in covering the polls than in reporting about the actual campaign. This produces headlines and TV coverage that seem intentionally designed to demoralize Republicans and persuade undecided "swing" voters -- who have a tendency to vote for the candidate they perceive as the likely winner -- to support Obama. The polls which most favor Obama, including a Washington Post poll released yesterday that showed Obama leading by 8 points, get hyped by the media and are incorporated into a pre-fabricated media narrative that depicts Romney as hapless, ineffective, and "out of touch." That such poll-driven coverage could function as a self-fulfilling prophecy -- in fact creating the result it pretends to predict -- is an increasing worry for conservatives.
However, this concern is counterbalanced by a general belief among Republicans that the numbers are so blatantly wrong that no intelligent and well-informed person could possibly believe them: How could anyone be so stupid as to think that Obama, after four years of recession and policy failures, is actually leading by 8 points in Ohio, a state he only won by 4 points in 2008?
Nevertheless, the Romney campaign yesterday took the unusual step of pushing back against the polls, with political director Rich Beeson telling reporters that the campaign's own internal polls show a much closer race in the Buckeye State. Romney is "inside the margin of error in Ohio," Beeson said, emphasizing that the Republican's campaign staff "have confidence in our data and our metrics," while accusing the Obama campaign of "spiking the ball at the 30-yard line" by touting recent polls as evidence of a decisive advantage for the Democrat. Top Romney adviser Kevin Madden echoed that message after Tuesday's airport rally. "We don't make any decisions based on what the public polls say," Madden said, predicting that the race would be "close all the way to November."
Former Ohio GOP political director Jonathan Gormley agreed with that assessment. "It's going to be a very tight race to the end, no matter what," Gormley told me after the rally. "The Republican side is more energized -- that's not reflected in a lot of the polls right now. There is a bit of oversampling of the Democrats in these polls. I think there's a presumption among the media that the Democrat voters will turn out in similar rates that they did in 2008. I'm not seeing that on the ground."
Gormley said that both parties have begun to focus on their efforts to drive voters to turn out, now that early voting has begun in Ohio and other states. Obama's visits to Ohio this week will "be at Kent State and Bowling Green, two college campuses," Gormley noted. "To me, this signifies that he has shifted his strategy to that of turnout. Last week, he was at more of a persuasion-based rally in Columbus; this week he's going to be turning out the vote on college campuses. He's shifted to turnout; I think that the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan side is shifting to turnout as well. They're focusing now on the I-75 corridor in Ohio, which is thought to be a very conservative Republican corridor. So the race is shifting. It's going to be close."
If this is good news for Republicans -- Romney is doing better in Ohio than some polls would indicate -- a too-close-to-call race may also eventually be bad news, if the final result in the Buckeye State is close enough to produce a repeat of the long recount battle in Florida, which Gormley warned is a genuine possibility.
"The other thing to keep an eye on… is if it stays very close and if this thing verges on provisional ballots becoming important to the outcome in Ohio, possibly a recount," said Gormley, who noted that Democrats decided against forcing a recount after George W. Bush narrowly beat Democrat challenger John Kerry in Ohio in 2004. "You'd see, probably, a lot of lawyers coming into the state on both sides over the final 40 days and really looking at the way in which ballots are counted.… I think both sides are going to be really ramping up that effort to be prepared for Nov. 7 and beyond. Nov. 6 is Election Day. Nov. 7 and beyond could be very important in a state like Ohio."
Various analysts have offered alternative scenarios by which Romney could cobble together enough Electoral College votes to win the presidency without winning Ohio, but that would be unprecedented -- no Republican has ever become president without winning the Buckeye State. So the battle for Ohio will go on until Election Day and, perhaps, even longer than that.