Twas another week when negative attention to comments by Mitt Romney combined with relatively strong poll showings by Barack Obama made observers wonder if the incumbent is still enjoying a post-convention “bounce,” is actually opening up a serious lead, or is fundamentally still in a very close race with the challenger.
As surely everyone has heard by now, a neglected videotape (unearthed and publicized by Mother Jones’ David Corn) of a May appearance by Romney at a Boca Raton fundraiser showed him embracing a Randian view of American society in which the 47% of households who don’t (currently) owe federal income taxes are locked into “dependence on government” and are sure Obama voters of no concern to the candidate and his virtuous coalition of productive folk. Aside from exposing Romney to Democratic criticism and media ridicule, the incident immediately set off an extended intramural debate among conservatives over the accuracy and political wisdom of his “47%” characterization (called, for example, “libertarian nonsense” by conservative Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson).
In terms of the state of the race, the consensus seems to be that Obama currently enjoys about a 4-point lead among likely voters, though the major dissenter, the Gallup Tracking Poll, which shows Obama’s “convention bounce” gone and the race tied, is unusually prestigious. Another consensus finding is that the “enthusiasm gap” between Republicans and Democrats has largely evaporated, which means Romney is not getting the polling “bump” long expected when pollsters started applying LV “screens” to the respondents. A heavy battery of battleground-state polls have been coming out this week, most providing good news for Obama (he’s led in all 21 post-convention polls of the ten closest battleground states that were conducted by traditional, phone-interview methodologies; robopolls have been somewhat less favorable), particularly in Virginia, Iowa and Colorado; Florida and (especially) North Carolina are dicier for the president. A closer national race, of course, would be reflected in closer battleground results, though the playing field is somewhat tilted to Obama so long as he looks strong in Virginia, Ohio and Iowa.
As to how seriously to take the polling at this point, some analysts have pointed out that no candidate in recent history who trailed in the polls in mid-September ultimately won. Others argue that the lateness of the conventions makes that precedent misleading; Obama may still be benefitting from a temporary convention “bounce.” Major national polls supplying more detailed results have not been very promising, however, for Romney; his favorable/unfavorable ratings still lag behind Obama’s significantly, and he’s making no gains on any major “key issue.” From a demographic point of view, Obama looks likely to perform as well among African-Americans and Hispanics as he did in 2008, and there are no signs as yet that undecided white voters are “breaking” towards Romney.
Another complication for the Romney campaign is that it has not invested in GOTV resources as heavily as Obama’s, which means its own base-motivation efforts may have to depend disproportionately on over-the-radar-screen appeals (e.g., to conservative evangelical voters on cultural issues) that could backfire with undecideds while helping Democrats motivate their own base. Finally, there were reports late this week that the supposed ace-in-the-hole of a big cash advantage for advertising by Romney and his “independent” allies may have been significantly exaggerated.
Still, the debates are still to come, as are two more Jobs Reports and a world full of peril. We’ll only begin to see serious alarms about impending defeat among Republicans if Obama’s current performance in the polls is maintained or even enhanced into next week. Every precedent about the Romney campaign going back to the primaries are that it will meet this sort of challenge with heavy negative advertising, egged on by conservative activists who have long been convinced Obama’s gotten a “free ride” from a “lapdog” media from the 2008 campaign on.
Last week’s big down-ballot development was the growing realization that Democrats had greatly improved their odds of maintaining control of the Senate. On the positive side for Dems, there are signs Republicans may soon give up on trying to force Todd Akin out of the race in Missouri, and will begin to give him active assistance; there’s no question the whole brouhaha has enormously helped Claire McCaskill, who earlier looked to be the incumbent most likely to lose. On the other hand, a new poll in Maine showed that independent Angus King (who is certain to caucus with Democrats if elected) has a surprisingly small lead over Republican Charlie Summers. Democrats might, however, abandon their own candidate in favor of King if Summers continues to move up in polls and attracts serious national money.
The most interesting down-ballot news of the week was the publication of the first credible and nonpartisan analysis showing that Democrats have a solid chance to retake the House—assuming, of course, that the national dynamics don’t deteriorate before November 6. Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium projected a 14-seat Democratic House majority based on current conditions. Wang warned, however, that his model was utilizing national rather than district polling, which when it begins to emerge in the home stretch, could tell a different story. Still, the earlier assumption that the landscape did not include enough vulnerable GOP seats to make a Democratic takeover feasible may soon be generally reconsidered. One key factor is that an expected Republican advantage via redistricting has not really transpired (nonpartisan redistricting initiatives in Florida and especially California—where Democrats could make major gains–have significantly reduced the national GOP advantage).
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