Any candidate who wins the popular vote by at least three percentage points is certain to win the electoral college, and any candidate who wins the popular vote by as much as a full percentage point is overwhelmingly likely to win the electoral college. So the best way to follow the election is to read the national polling averages. National polls have a key advantage: There are a lot more of them, so we’re less likely to be fooled by the occasional outlier. And the frequency of national polls, conducted by the same handful of firms, means informed readers can catch any obvious partisan tilts in the results and interpret them accordingly.
Granted, political junkies like me won’t be able to stop themselves from peeking at what the Des Moines Register thinks is happening in the Hawkeye State. But if we’re smart, we’ll look at the national polls to find out what’s really going on.
2. A vice presidential candidate should appeal to key groups in swing states.
We hear this every election cycle. The National Journal’s latest Veepstakes rankings, for example, say that former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty makes sense as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney because “in an election that could be decided by Rustbelt battlegrounds, it couldn’t hurt to have a guy capable of matching VP Biden’s blue-collar appeal.”
This sort of thinking is probably what led to John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin in 2008; his campaign thought she would neutralize Barack Obama’s advantage among female voters. And supposedly, Joe Biden was picked to help Obama with white working-class voters in the swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. The problem is that there’s no evidence that vice presidential candidates have that kind of impact.
The exception, research has found, is that a popular running mate might help by a couple of points in his or her home state. But even if a candidate knows what the swing states are, it’s a lot harder to figure out where, exactly, the campaign could most use that two-point boost. And home-state popularity isn’t transferable. So whatever folks in Duluth or St. Paul might think of Pawlenty, he might not appeal to voters in Dayton.
3. Ignore the national economy, and focus on swing-state economies.
Ever since political scientists showed that the economy is a major factor in presidential elections, they have struggled to determine what exactly that boils down to. Is it voters’ personal experience? What their friends and neighbors believe? The answer matters a lot. If the local economy is the deciding factor, then it would make sense for the candidates to focus on how the economy is doing in, say, Dade County, Fla., or Hamilton County, Ohio.