The week after the conclusion of the two national political conventions has been lively, to say the least. Amid signs of a modest post-convention “bounce” for Obama, augmented by some favorable economic signs, the Romney campaign seems to be undergoing one of its periodic mini-crises, launching risky personal attacks on the president even as intraparty criticism reemerges about his campaign strategy and execution.
The Obama “bounce,” initially measured at around five points (after a one-to-two point bounce for Romney), seems to mainly involve renewed enthusiasm among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (as reflected in relatively small “gaps” between Obama’s standing in registered-voter and likely-voter polls, with the latter beginning to be deployed by most of the major polling firms). Aside from taking a small but significant lead in virtually all of the “horse-race” polls (and in polls of most battleground states), the president’s job approval rating in the much-watched Gallup tracking survey has broken the crucial 50% barrier. Moreover, the positive feelings emanating from the Democratic convention seems to have obscured any backlash to a tepid August jobs report. Subsequent positive market reactions to a Eurozone “rescue” plan and just today to the Federal Reserve Board’s announcement of a third—and this time, open-ended—round of “quantitative easing,” help boost a shaky but very real aura of economic optimism that could be critical for the incumbent.
This week’s developments in the Middle East could have been a real setback for Obama (and still could be, depending on what happens during the weeks just ahead), with violent anti-American protests and the assassination of a U.S. Ambassador, accompanied by a growing rift with Israel. But thanks to what many observers (including quite a few Republicans) consider ill-timed and over-the-top criticism from Romney, Obama could actually gain some ground, even as the Romney campaign passes another week getting far away from its intended economic message. Probably the best development for Team Mitt is that the conservative activists who had renewed their criticism of the non-substantive nature of the campaign during and after the GOP convention have been the very ones to spring to his defense in the foreign-policy conflict with Obama.
We are at the point in the general election cycle where the stretch-run strategies of the two campaigns are relatively clear. Romney and his allies are expected to maintain a solid if not overwhelming edge in paid battleground state advertising from here on out, while Obama and Democrats are relying on an earlier, heavy investment in GOTV infrastructure. This “air game versus ground game” dynamic has attracted varying analyses. Most political scientists believe paid ads (so long as they are not uncontested) are less important in presidential than in down-ballot contests, if only because the candidates are so well known and the number of undecided voters open to persuasion (particularly this year) is so small. But the amount of pro-Obama spending on GOTV doesn’t necessarily indicate an effective turnout operation: it just makes it possible. For the most part (though litigation continues in several states), voter suppression efforts by the GOP in major battleground states have been restrained by the courts, except in Pennsylvania, where a new voter ID law may take effect, but in a state where the Romney campaign is not presently even running ads. It’s important to remember that early voting begins pretty soon, with Iowa kicking it off two weeks from today.
The “battleground” has shrunk a bit in recent weeks, with NM, MI and (probably) PA being conceded to Obama. In the remaining nine contested states (CO, FL, IA, NV, NH, NC, OH, VA and WI), NC is the only one where Romney currently has a documented lead. But all these states remain close, and Republicans are reasonably confident about FL and VA assuming the election stays close or gets closer. Romney obviously needs a good performance in the upcoming debates (on October 3, 16, and 22, with the vice-presidential debate on October 11), but barring a major gaffe, it’s “debatable” how much these events will move a small undecided vote. Romney will continue to walk a tightrope between appealing to swing voters and keeping his mistrustful “base” happy, particularly if the current Obama lead persists and conservative activists renew demands that Mitt go more negative or get more substantive.
Downballot activity is also intensifying. The game of chicken between Missouri Senate nominee Todd Akin and the national GOP continues; he has only until September 25 to comply with party demands that he retire from the race, and a new Rasmussen poll showing him within six points of Claire McCaskill—along with the certainty that Republicans will come around and give him late financial assistance if he toughs it out—may be all he needs to convince himself to stick around. Two potentially vulnerable Democratic Senators, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Florida’s Bill Nelson, seem to be maintaining solid leads despite earlier signs of gains by their challengers. Down the stretch, Senate and House candidates in both parties who happen to be in presidential battleground states may be significantly affected by the advertising and turnout strategies of the national parties. Beyond that landscape, it’s likely Republicans will get a boost from heavy conservative 501(c)(4) and super PAC spending. And while some Republicans are getting nervous about the Romney campaign’s travails affecting House candidates (along with polls showing right-wing House celebrities like Michele Bachmann and Steve King looking more vulnerable than before), landscape advantages make an actual Democratic takeover of the House very unlikely.