Most observers of the presidential election are obsessively focused on Ohio right now, and for good reason. No Republican presidential candidate has won the White House without Ohio, and right now — with the race a dead heat — Obama holds a small edge over Mitt Romney in the state. In the average of averages, drawn from Real Clear Politics, Pollster, and Talking Points Memo, Obama holds a 2.4 point lead over Romney. If that persists into Election Day, then we’ll be able to say — with a fair amount of certainty — that Obama has won a second term.
But with all attention on Ohio, there’s been some neglect of the other state that might choose the next president — Virginia. The simple fact — one that’s been overlooked — is that Romney needs to win Ohio and Virginia to win the presidency. And the polling averages show Romney trailing in Ohio — and only tied in Virginia. (See here and here.) Right now, Romney is not winning in either of two must win states.
In 2008, Virginia was the icing on the cake for Obama’s historic win. He had all but won the election before the Virginia results were announced. This year, Virginia isn’t crucial to Obama’s chances, but it is a testing ground for the strength of his coalition. In 2008, Obama won the state by combining high minority turnout — among African Americans and Latinos, who make up a third of the state’s population — with solid performance among college-educated whites, particularly women. If Obama can perform well with those groups and maintain a lead in Virginia, it’s a sign that he’s well-positioned nationwide. By contrast, if his performance lags — and Virginia becomes a tight race — it’s a sign that his coalition is stretched thin.
For now, the president is facing the latter scenario. In the average of averages, Romney holds a slight, .73 point lead over Obama, after trailing for most of the year. His gains come from narrowing the gender gap and making inroads with the voters gave Obama his victory four years ago. This has led some observers to declare Virginia a done deal for Romney. But that’s a mistake. Obama may not hold a lead in the Virginia, but the race is a toss-up and the path to victory is clear: He needs to rebuild an existing coalition, which means a focus on turnout and enthusiasm. By contrast, Romney needs to persuade and hold Obama voters if he’s going to eke out a win in the Commonwealth.
There’s one other thing worth mentioning: If Romney loses Ohio, he still has a plausible — albeit, unlikely — path to victory; a full swing state sweep would give him 270 electoral votes, and the presidency. But if Obama takes Virginia, then Romney can’t win. Put another way, Virginia is a bonus for the Obama campaign, and a must have for Romney. And given the president’s small lead in Ohio, that’s a shaky position, if you’re a Republican.