What does it mean that in 2012 Mitt Romney has, during the Republican presidential primaries, done well in some of the same Ohio and Michigan urban-suburban counties that President Obama won in 2008 — a pattern likely to be repeated in some upcoming primaries?
Some observers think it could be significant, that it might mean Romney would contest Obama more competitively in such places should the former Massachusetts governor become the GOP nominee.
But it's risky to read too much into the fact that the 2012 map of Romney's areas of strength in some states resembles Obama's 2008 map.
Paul Beck, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, said in an interview:
"These are counties that have Democratic majorities but they're also large counties with a lot of Republicans who tend to be upscale and better educated. That's the natural Romney constituency all over the country.
"I wouldn't make too much of it. These are different voters. It's not like Romney is going to be able to pull away from Obama all these voters in these counties in the fall."
Beck said political scientists would explain what's happening as a "compositional effect," that is, all those upscale Republicans and GOP-leaning independents in the metro areas of Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati are giving Romney electoral lift in roughly the same areas where Obama derived his 2008 support.
Misreading the compositional effects of political contests can lead to embarrassing conclusions, Beck says.
Like the classic case from decades ago in which a scholar concluded that Southern blacks were voting for segregationist candidates because such candidates kept being elected from districts with large black populations, Beck says: The problem with the conclusion was that blacks in those Southern counties at the time were denied the vote. So it was the whites in those districts who were doing the electing.
What to watch for with these urban-suburban counties come Election Day, Beck says, is turnout of Republican voters in these areas. If they turn out in large numbers, then they can offset Obama's vote in these areas that should be his stronghold and make the race more interesting, Beck says.