With eleven days left before November 6, the general perception is that the presidential contest is even, though most formal prediction models continue to give Obama a slight edge and some of the more hackish Republicans continue to insist Mitt Romney is riding an endless wave of “momentum” to a landslide.
It’s unclear whether the Romney Surge in the polls that followed the first presidential debate subsided on its own, or was smothered by the vice presidential and the second and third presidential debates, all of which were generally rated as Democratic wins. And for that matter, it’s unclear if the Romney Surge was purely produced by the first debate, or was partially attributable to a natural decline in Obama’s post-convention Surge.
But it does appear that a razor-thin margin divides the two candidates in national polls of likely voters (Obama pretty much leads them all among registered voters), and that while Romney has made gains almost everywhere, he’s still trailing in Ohio, Nevada, Wisconsin and Iowa, and has probably taken the lead in North Carolina and Florida. Virginia and Colorado are too close to call. Post-first-debate measurements of “enthusiasm” that showed Republicans picking up a big advantage were as likely as catching lightning bugs in a jar; both “bases” seem very motivated, particularly in the battleground states. As for undecided voters, some polls (though not others) show Romney making impressive gains among women—presumably charmed by Moderate Mitt—and virtually all show him doing very well—perhaps over 60 percent—among white voters. The new ABC/WaPo poll that came out today, giving Romney a 50/47 lead among LVs, had Obama at 37 percent among white voters, a level lower than any Democratic presidential candidate has received since 1984. But polling in Ohio has universally shown Obama performing better there among white voters than nationally, helping explain his persistent lead in the state most observers think will decide it all (aside from his reported two-to-one lead in early voting). Indeed, the increasing possibility of a Popular Vote/Electoral Vote split in the final results, with Romney winning the former and Obama the latter, is becoming a big preoccupation of the punditry.
So the contest, it appears, will go down to late paid media, GOTV efforts, and external news events. Republicans have a significant but not overwhelming advantage in paid media; Democrats are still perceived to have an advantage in GOTV; and nobody knows how the news will cut, although presidents tend to have more leverage over the news than do former governors. Certainly no one factored Hurricane Sandy into their presidential election forecast models, representing all sorts of challenges and opportunities for Obama, and quite likely disrupting campaign activities in several states in the most crucial days before the election.
Republican hopes of taking back the Senate took yet enough hit this week as Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock—already locked in a closer-than-expected race with Democratic congressman Joe Donnelly—followed the path of Missouri’s Todd Akin in making offensive remarks in a public setting about rape and abortion. Mourdock has not been repudiated by national Republicans the way Akin was—indeed, Mitt Romney’s ad endorsing Mourdock is still running despite Romney’s disavowal of the hard-core-conservative Hoosier’s comments calling pregnancies resulting from rape “God’s Will.” But with polls showing significant gains by Democratic candidates in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and no signs of a GOP breakthrough elsewhere, the odds of the GOP making a net gain of three seats are not good. So even if Romney and Ryan win, they may be dealing with a Democratic Senate. This could be very discomfiting to conservatives who don’t trust Romney and assumed he would be effectively controlled by a Republican Congress. But in the heat of the final stretch of the presidential campaign, no Republican is going to breath a word about it.
All in all, between hurricanes, conflicted polling, the possibility of “split decisions” (between the popular and electoral vote, and between the presidential and Senate results), and the even stronger possibility of contested results in key states (both sides have been lawyering up heavily for election day disputes), this could be one of the wildest end-games since—well, 2000. The 2004 scenario of a very close race being decided by Ohio almost seems like a nice, placid fantasy.