Romney’s Nevada Bluff

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Romney is all in.
Romney is all in. Photo: iStockphoto

I’ve argued that Mitt Romney is consciously trying to bluff the campaign media into thinking he is ahead. The bluff isn’t that Romney gained a lot of ground after the first presidential debate. (Clearly he did.) The bluff is that he is either continuing to gain momentum or has actually pulled ahead or into a tie, neither of which is true according to the public evidence.

It’s possible the public evidence is wrong. But what convinces me that Romney is deliberately bluffing are statements like this, accompanying his campaign swing through Nevada:

Officials hinted that their own polling shows Romney leading, with one top campaign strategist saying, "I think we'll win Nevada."

"Very, very close, and we are a little ahead and moving," the strategist said.

Let me explain why this is so revealing. Obama’s lead in the electoral college is persistent, but rests on very narrow advantages. If Romney could close small deficits in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa, while sweeping the states where he’s tied or narrowly ahead, like North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, and Colorado, he can win. But Nevada is almost certainly out of reach. Over the last few years, public polls have underestimated the Democratic vote in that state by large and growing margins. Even in the 2010 Republican landslide year, nearly all the polls showed Harry Reid losing his Senate race, only for him to prevail by six points. And the public polls, which have systematically erred on the GOP side, all show Obama ahead there anyway.

Las Vegas reporter Jon Ralston has explained that the polls miss the impact both of Reid’s turnout operation and the strength of the Latino vote. (Most polls don’t ask questions in Spanish, and thus miss the Spanish-speaking vote, which is expanding in size.) About ten days ago, Ralston explained the dynamic in a column, and then, as the early vote has rolled in, has reported on the very sizable Democratic edge, which makes a Romney win in that state nearly impossible.

Romney can certainly win without Nevada’s six electoral votes. He would have to either win Ohio or sweep nearly every other contested state. It’s plausible to believe that we may really be looking at a scenario like that. But it’s very hard to imagine that Nevada is part of the equation. So when Romney’s campaign strategists say they’re “ahead” in Nevada, it strongly suggests that they are not holding a pair of pocket aces — their leaks about internal polling and the electoral map are a cultivated plan to project a false optimism. Or, as the New York Times reported today in an odd confession of the strategy, “Cultivating the image that he is a winner, his aides say, could be Mr. Romney’s best strategy for actually winning.”