Pancho Vs. Lefty

Ohio Is Last Stand for Mitt Romney’s Presidential Campaign

The polling for Romney is much worse than it looks, and his last stand begins in the Rust Belt, on a bus in Ohio, says pollster Thomas Riehle.

09.26.12 4:45 AM ET

Reading results from recent state polls and reviewing the Real Clear Politics Electoral Vote map reminds me of the Townes Van Zandt song, “Pancho and Lefty.” In the song, Pancho is a down-on-his-luck drifter in Mexico, done in for the reward money by some guy in the desert wearing a suit, Lefty.

In this presidential race, Barack Obama is Pancho, and Mitt Romney is Lefty.

“Lefty he can’t sing the bluesAll night long like he used toThe dust that Pancho bit down southEnded up in Lefty’s mouth The day they laid poor Pancho lowLefty split for Ohio Where he got the bread to go,There ain’t nobody knows”

The YouGov polls in 27 states, conducted online September 7–14 (full wrap-up) tell the story: nearly all the real battleground states are trending for Obama.

A year ago, Republicans could hardly wait for this campaign to begin. They figured that given the performance of the economy on Obama’s watch, the president would be as unattractive as Pancho (“breath’s as hard as kerosene”). Republicans first had to get through the primaries, but once they did, they’d get this guy in their sights and their paper bullets and attacks on his record couldn’t miss.

But the Romney campaign and its affiliated gang of super PACs couldn’t always shoot straight.

The Vanderbilt/YouGov Ad Rating Project focuses particularly on the reaction to campaign advertisements of “true Independents.” They are the roughly 10 percent to 12 percent of registered voters who respond “Independent” when asked if they are Democrats, Republicans, or something else, and who then respond “Do not lean toward either party” when asked if they tilt a tad toward the Dems or the GOP. (In these polarized times, an independent who leans one way or another tends to be almost as loyal a partisan voter as someone who initially identifies with that party.)

According to Vanderbilt/YouGov, the late August negative-ad efforts of the Romney camp were a little more effective with independents than its early August efforts, but not much. The president was proving a harder target to hit than Pancho’s pony (“His horse was fast as polished steel”).

The Pancho-Obama team fired back, yet they did not always shoot straight either. The Vanderbilt/YouGov Ad Rating Project found in August, for example, that negative advertisements attacking Romney for failing to disclose his income taxes worked better for Obama with independents than efforts to shore up the his own positive image.

Here, real life diverges from Van Zandt’s poetry. Romney, his feet under fire by Obama over Bain and income taxes, kept jumping around like the town drunk being peppered by cowboy bullies. He could never find his footing—and then stumbled through a lackluster Republican convention.

A few days later, the Democrats put on a better show in Charlotte. And during the critical 10-day convention period at the end of August and beginning of September, when voter focus on the race was heightened, the Obama campaign far outspent its rival. Now it looks like Pancho may have slipped Lefty’s ambush.

Romney has fallen a few points behind nationally, and today, his last stand, like Lefty’s, begins in the Rust Belt, on a bus in Ohio. Where else can he go?

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• Pennsylvania was an early target state that got away from Romney (see current Pennsylvania results from YouGov and from RealClearPolitics).

• Results in Michigan (like Mexico in the song, Michigan is an ancestral Romney state) are no more promising (see current results from YouGov and from RealClearPolitics).

• Elsewhere in the Upper Midwest and Rust Belt, Wisconsin seemed likely to flip from Obama’s column in 2008 to the Republicans in 2012 once Romney chose cheesehead Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. But even Wisconsin looks like a stretch for Romney (see current Wisconsin results from YouGov and from RealClearPolitics).

For Romney, like Lefty in the song, the last road leads to Cleveland.

“The poets tell how Pancho fell,Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotelThe desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s coldSo the story ends we’re told.”