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Aug. 7: North Carolina Isn’t Central to Electoral Math

There were two polls out in Colorado on Tuesday showing apparently contradictory results. One survey, from Rasmussen Reports, had an exact tie there. Another, from Public Policy Polling, put President Obama ahead by six points, or by four points with Gary Johnson, a Libertarian, included in the survey. (In cases where pollsters ask questions both with and without Mr. Johnson on the ballot, we simply average the numbers, so our forecast model treats the poll as showing a five-point lead for Mr. Obama.)

As regular readers will know, however, Public Policy Polling surveys have had a Democratic lean this cycle, while Rasmussen Reports polls have a Republican one. So it’s not that unusual to see a split like this between them. Considering their respective “house effects,” both polls are consistent with the forecast model’s prior take on Colorado, which puts Mr. Obama ahead there by slightly under three percentage points.

Another Public Policy Polling survey, in North Carolina, put Mr. Obama three points ahead there. Even considering the polling firm’s house effect, this is one of Mr. Obama’s better numbers in the state and did move the forecast in North Carolina some: his chances of winning it rose to 33 percent from 27 percent previously.

But North Carolina just isn’t that important to the electoral math. Mr. Obama currently holds leads in the forecast in states totaling 332 electoral votes. That figure includes a couple of cases — Florida and Virginia — that are close to being tied in the model right now. But even dropping those from Mr. Obama’s column, he has leads in states holding 290 electoral votes

The 290 total, of course, also includes plenty of states (like Ohio and Colorado) that Mr. Obama could easily lose. If Mr. Romney gains a few points on Mr. Obama nationally, Mr. Obama will be underwater in a lot of places.

But how likely is it that Mr. Obama’s numbers will decline in states like Ohio and Colorado and, simultaneously, improve in North Carolina? That is what would be required to make North Carolina a true tipping-point state.

It’s not impossible — there is some uncertainty in the numbers — but it’s just not all that likely, which is why our forecast model regards North Carolina as only the 13th most important state in this year’s election.

If Mr. Obama were consistently getting polls showing him a couple of points ahead in North Carolina, it would be a different story. But he isn’t. Instead, it’s one of the only swing states where Mr. Romney has held the polling lead more often than not; Mr. Romney has been ahead in 9 of 13 polls there since May 1.

Both campaigns seem to disagree with this hypothesis about North Carolina. Mr. Obama’s campaign and allied groups have run $12 million in advertising there since May 1; Mr. Romney’s campaign and allies have spent about $19 million on ads.

Maybe the campaigns are seeing something in private polling that isn’t apparent in the public ones. But I’m always a bit skeptical of that idea: the notion that private polling trumps public polling is an oft-repeated notion that lacks much in the way of evidence. I might agree that the typical campaign pollster is a bit more skilled than the typical public pollster — there’s more money to be made that way. On the other hand, people engaged in many forms of decision analysis tend to overweight the importance of their private information, and they often interpret it in a biased fashion.

More likely, I think, the campaigns are making an analytic error. The most important states in the electoral math are not those that are closest in an absolute sense, but rather those that are closest to the national average.

In 2008, North Carolina was the second-closest state: Mr. Obama won it by 0.3 percentage points. (Just slightly larger than John McCain’s 0.1 percentage point win in Missouri.) But it was hardly the most important: Mr. Obama already had 350 electoral votes without North Carolina.

Moving ahead to this year, our forecast has Mr. Romney 2.3 points ahead in North Carolina as of Tuesday, while Mr. Obama is up by 2.8 points in Colorado. North Carolina is, technically speaking, closer. But Colorado is much closer to the national average, which currently gives Mr. Obama a 2.7-point lead. It’s much closer to the tipping point.

There are also some tactical aspects of campaign strategy, however, which complicate the analysis some. If Mr. Romney pulled out of North Carolina, while Mr. Obama continued to run ads there, it probably would move some toward Mr. Obama relative to the national average, and its importance would increase. Or if Mr. Obama ceased to run ads there, Mr. Romney would presumably no longer feel any temptation to call his bluff, and his campaign could deploy its $19 million elsewhere.

Still, even with all the money these campaigns have, they are probably going to narrow down their list of battlegrounds some as we get closer to Nov. 6. We aren’t likely to see either campaign pull out of the state before the Democratic convention in early September — but unless the polls in North Carolina begin to show leads for Mr. Obama on a more consistent basis, it will probably be among the first on the chopping block.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.