‘The race appears virtually tied’. This is the armchair analysis we’ve been fed for months about the 2012 presidential election. Conventional wisdom holds that President Barack Obama faces headwinds that he may be able to power through or that may prove too difficult to overcome. The balance between the two outcomes is intensely fragile. Any one attack ad, gaffe and or political pivot is always the next tipping point for the small percentage of voters who are yet to make up their minds.
But despite the day-to-day media bluster, President Obama still stands upright in the ring. Countless pundits will point out the historical odds weighing against his candidacy, and they are not wrong. But there are a number of reasons for his supporters to hold a quiet confidence as the end of summer approaches. Electoral math, polling out of swing states and steady (though mediocre) job growth are starting to show any number of clear paths to victory.
One narrative that has been lost in the petty back and forth of the summer campaign is how difficult the electoral math is for Gov. Mitt Romney. President Obama won a substantial 365 electoral votes in 2008. Though he likely won’t hold some of the longshot pick ups from the last cycle (i.e. North Carolina and Indiana), he still is the defending champion in the classic ‘swing states’. Unless he finds an innovative path to 270, Gov. Romney will have to peel at least Ohio, Florida, Virginia from the Obama column. Even if he wins those three, the president still wins, and there are yet more paths to re-election for the president that will give the Romney team headaches from now until November.
But if there is a national swing in the polls that would make a swing state sweep a reality for Gov. Romney, it hasn’t manifested itself yet. RealClearPolitics average of state polling gives the president a 4.8 percent lead in Ohio, a 1.4 percent lead in Florida, and a 2.8 percent lead in Virginia. Even if you think the leads in Florida and Virginia are too small to give the president comfort this far out, the polling out of Ohio seems to give the president a clear cushion. If he holds all the states Sen. John Kerry won in 2004, and picks up Ohio, all the president needs to return to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is victory in New Mexico and Colorado or Nevada.
Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gives Obama a 90.5 percent chance of holding New Mexico, a 75.6 percent chance of holding Nevada, and a 61.5 percent chance of holding Colorado. This is not to say the numbers make it impossible for Gov. Romney to win all three plus Ohio and take the White House. It does, however, illustrate how much greater a challenge it is to find a comfortable path for Gov. Romney to get to 270 than it is to find myriad paths for President Obama to keep his job.
Something needs to rattle the race out of its summer slumber for Gov. Romney’s (few) paths to suddenly light up. Job growth has been by no means robust, but today’s report shows another month of six figure gains. The numbers are not good enough for the president to grab the mantle of job creator extraordinaire, but they may be enough to neutralize the argument that the president has been enough of an economic failure to reject him in November.
If the economy creates roughly the same number of jobs in August, September and October as it did in July (316,000 total), there could well be a sunny front page story for the Obama team on Friday, Nov. 2nd, just days before the election: “Despite inheriting enormous job losses at the hands of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, the Obama administration has officially overseen a net increase in jobs over their 3.5+ years in office”, the New York Times might write.
There would be plenty of ways for the Romney team to counter that late rhetorical weapon for the Obama team. ‘Mr. President, that’s all well and good, but the job growth just hasn’t been fast enough‘. Though its fair to claim job growth has been too slow and mediocre growth doesn’t absolve the president, the jobs argument does lose potency against the backdrop of positive job creation stories. It makes it more plausible that swing voters would need something more than a job creation argument from Gov. Romney to vote against the incumbent.
On all other issues beyond jobs and the economy, Gov. Romney has had a middling summer. His foreign tour was, at best, a wash for his foreign policy credentials, and he consistently trails the president on personal favorability, who will look out for the middle class and other issues that do still matter to people (at least a little bit). If President Obama is able to “fight Romney to a draw on the economy” and make the election about other issues, at least a little bit,(as Greg Sargent puts it), that is great news for his team.
Of course, all of this could be summertime tea leaf reading that will soon be swept away by history yet to be written. The 1980 election provides an example of a late breaking race that went decidedly against a fairly unpopular incumbent.
But ask yourself this as you think about who will win–is Gov. Romney a Ronald Reagan-esque figure capable of making an argument for the GOP beyond an anti-incumbent referendum or not? Your gut reaction to that question holds the key to what you think will happen in November.
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