The big story on Sunday morning was that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, with just 48 hours to go until Election Day, has detected weakness in Hillary Clinton’s support in traditionally Democratic states, like Michigan and Minnesota. The spin from the Trump campaign, citing internal polls, was that there is late-breaking momentum for the Republican candidate, marked by huge voter enthusiasm that would drive Republican voters, particularly of the white working class variety, to the polls.
If that sounds vaguely familiar, it should. This was the same story that the Mitt Romney campaign was selling in the final days before the 2012 election, and the media ate it up with a spoon.
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A CNN headline on November 5, 2012, the day before the election, read, “Latest Polls Show Dead Heat in Battle for White House; Razor Thin Margins on Election Eve.”
“I hear from a lot of Romney people who say look, they just don't buy the polls,” host Anderson Cooper said during a broadcast. “That they think that there's enthusiasm out there, that there's energy out there.”
“Well, they say that their internal polls are much more accurate than our polls,” said analyst Gloria Borger. “And they say that they're tighter, that states where we might show President Obama up by a couple of points, Anderson, they show it absolutely a dead heat, such as Ohio would be -- would be one of those examples.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, then a Romney surrogate, said on the same day that in his state, things looked better for Romney than anybody understood. In an appearance on CBS the same day he said, “The internal polls are what it`s all about...and the internal polls...have shown Romney consistently ahead. So I`m not kind of spinning, this is kind of what I think.”
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Republican Party officials, seeking any and all outlets for the release of positive information, found a willing helper in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper, which reported that internal data showed Romney “is ahead by a single percentage point in Ohio - the swing state that many believe could decide the election...Internal campaign polling completed last night by campaign pollster Neil Newhouse has Romney three points up in New Hampshire, two points up in Iowa and dead level in Wisconsin and - most startlingly - Pennsylvania.”
The paper concluded, If the Romney campaign's internal numbers are correct...then the former Massachusetts governor will almost certainly be elected 45th U.S. President.”
President Romney isn’t around to ask about the news coverage from just before the 2012 election, but the data is still out there.
In Ohio, where Romney was supposed to be up by one point, he lost 50-48. In New Hampshire, where he was supposedly up by 3, he lost by six, 52-46. Iowa, likewise, was not a two-point Romney win, but another six-point loss. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were also pretty far from “dead level.” Obama won them by seven, and five points, respectively.
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And CNN’s “razor thin” election margin? Also a myth. Obama won by a comfortable three percent in the popular vote and clobbered Romney in the Electoral College 332-206.
It pays to keep the 2012 election in mind, then, when Republican Party officials come on the television to claim that states like Michigan (last went Republican for president in 1988) and Minnesota (last went Republican for president in 1972) are actually in play.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, “as far as Michigan is concerned, I mean we have to look at our -- our -- our data. And we went in -- we go in with 3,000 samples a night. It matches public polling. It's an absolute toss-up.”
To be clear, here, in the public polling tracked at Real Clear Politics, Clinton has led Trump in every single poll of Michigan conducted since July.
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Trump himself cited unspecified polls to explain why his campaign scheduled last minute stops for him and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, in Minnesota.
“We’re going up to Minnesota which, traditionally has not been Republican at all,” Trump said at a rally in Florida. “And we’re doing phenomenally. We just saw a poll.”
Now Minnesota, not having voted Republican in a presidential election since Richard Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972, isn’t heavily polled. But the polls that are available give Clinton a solid lead there, as well.
To be sure, in an election year when Donald Trump crushed a 17-person field to win the GOP nomination, anything is possible. But there is a history of supporters of losing candidates claiming late surges that would carry them to the White House. (Kasich, who claimed Romney was likely to win Ohio, said the same thing about John McCain in the waning days of the 2008 election.)
With less than 48 hours to go before Election Day, any claims of states suddenly being “in play” should be treated with extreme skepticism.