Politics Explained: Where Things Stand a Week Away

When I last wrote, things were looking very good for President Barack Obama. He had a strong lead in the most important states of the election, like Ohio and Wisconsin, and was within striking distance of North Carolina; this of course, was the morning of October 3. In that article, I said that for Governor Mitt Romney to pull even with Obama, he would need to decisively win the debates, have a foreign policy crisis of some sort, and receive poor economic numbers for September and October. Things have changed drastically since then, but the idea that Romney has pulled ahead or even broken even with Obama is not true. So let’s examine the current situation based on the previously established criteria:

First, did Romney win the debates decisively? The answer, taken as a whole, is yes. Most pundits argue that Romney devastatingly won the first debate, and Obama won the second and third debates by a closer margin. I’m inclined to agree with this assessment, but taken together, the debates helped Romney.

Second, was there a foreign policy crisis? Republicans tried to turn the attacks on the Libya consulate into a national security disaster. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) remarked, “This is going to be a case study, studied for years, of a breakdown of national security at every level, failed presidential leadership — senior members of the Obama administration failed miserably.” Yet the Libya attack backfired spectacularly against Romney in the second debate, and the issue was markedly absent in the third debate.

Third, were there poor economic numbers? The jobs numbers looked quite good for Obama for September. Even though only 114,000 jobs were added (at this point, a good number is about 150,000 per month, although these numbers do get revised fairly significantly later on), unemployment fell below the symbolically significant 8% level to 7.8%.

Taken altogether, it would seem, based on my earlier assessment, that Romney did part of what he needed to do, but not everything that was required to break even with Obama. Yet many national polls show Romney leading Obama, as the RCP average currently shows him up 0.6 points; so was I wrong?

No, and here’s why. The election is decided by the Electoral College, and not by popular vote, and Obama has maintained his lead in key swing states. Most notably, despite his losses in national polling, he has maintained a consistent 2 point lead in Ohio in the last two weeks, and Romney has not led in a single Ohio poll since October 10. It’s a political cliché that everything comes down to Ohio, but, this year, it’s actually true: according to Nate Silver’s model, Ohio has almost a 50 percent chance of providing the decisive electoral vote in this election, and he also gives Obama a 73 percent chance of winning Ohio. In general, state polls have been much stronger than national polls for Obama, as he still maintains steady leads in Ohio, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada; Colorado and Virginia are now true tossups, but Obama doesn’t need them to win the election. If Obama wins Ohio, as it increasingly seems he will, then he only needs to win one of Iowa or Nevada to win the Electoral College.

Nonetheless, Obama can’t rest on his laurels. Before the first debate, there were rumors that senior Republican leaders were considering reallocating campaign funds towards important Senate and House races to ensure that even if Obama won, as seemed very likely, he would face Republican opposition in Congress. Democrats were poised to similarly redirect their funding. Now, however, money that presumably would have gone to states like Montana and Indiana will remain in Ohio and Colorado.

Furthermore, while he is still on pace to win this election, Obama burned through most of the cushion he had built up for himself in the summer and September, and he can’t afford another slip-up. Independents in most swing states have swung towards Romney, and only the voter registration advantage that Democrats enjoy across the country (there are about 42 million registered Democrats versus  about 30 million registered Republicans) has kept polls close. With a week to go, it’s doubtful that either candidate will significantly change the election; it will come down to who can turn out their base better in swing states. Unfortunately for Obama, he’s going to have to sweat out these last few days because of his poor performance in Denver. Obama still has a small lead, but this looks to be one of the closest reelection bids in modern American history.


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