Right-leaning writers keep claiming that the polls just have to be wrong, because we keep seeing Mitt Romney and Barack Obama campaigning in states where polls show Obama has a big lead — such as Ohio and Florida. The argument is that neither Obama nor Romney would be investing in these states, if it weren’t actually very close in them — so therefore, the polls are misleading us They say we should read campaign schedules as a hidden indicator of which states the campaigns think are really close right now.
This is all wrong.
In fact, campaigns should be investing resources in states like these regardless of whether they are actually very close at the moment. That’s because these are what Nate Silver calls “Tipping Point States.” If the race ends up being very close nationally, those states are going to end up being very close as well — even if they are not now very close. So campaigns must invest in them now, on the chance that the national race will end up tightening up considerably — at which point these states will be decisive. So the fact that both campaigns are investing heavily in them now does not tell us whether they are actually close now.
Remember: if the national race is a three-point spread or more, there’s really no reason to pay attention to the electoral college at all — which means none of this will matter. But if the race is closer, then the states that decide the election are going to be the tipping point states, no matter what they look like right now. And currently, the top three tipping point states by Silver’s calculation are Ohio, Virginia, and…Florida.
The bottom line: Florida and Ohio have been close to the tipping point for a generation; that makes them likely to wind up there this time around, too. And that’s going to be true no matter what any particular poll is showing right now. No matter how the losing side wants to spin it, the polls are showing what they are showing. And no hidden indicator is going to reveal that the campaigns have a secret view of the race that's different from what we are seeing in them.