Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is Romney Winning?

The smart-money has always been that November would be a very tight race--one or two good months of job numbers (whatever they really mean) don't change that. How close is it? Let's take a look:

Approval Ratings and The Vote
The Center for Politics takes a look at the presidential approval ratings (around 47-48% and the popular vote). They compare it to previous years. It looks like this:
If Obama has 1 50% approval rating he gets about 50% of the vote. Below that? Below 50% of the vote. So, hey--what does that suggest?
Whether we base our prediction on President Obama’s 47% approval rating in the Gallup Poll in early May or a more sophisticated forecasting model incorporating economic conditions and the “time for change” factor, it appears likely that we are headed for a very close election in November. Both models make Obama a slight favorite to win a second term. However, the final outcome will depend on the actual performance of the economy and the public’s evaluation of the president’s job performance in the months ahead. Those interested in assessing where the presidential race stands should focus on these two indicators rather than the day-to-day events of the campaign, which tend to dominate media coverage of the election.
The Blue Wall
On the other hand, presidential elections aren't decided by the % of the vote, are they? It's about the electoral college. Today, according to Real Clear Politics, it looks like this:

You need 270 EV to win: Obama's almost there! The fact is: yes, things look favorable to Obama on this map--but the truth is that this is based on (a) some--but not a huge amount--of polling and (b) 2008 and 2004 (the hard blue states are called the "Kerry state"--states Kerry won). 

This is called The Blue Wall: the demographics of key states that trend in a specific direction. As you can see, if Obama wins Florida, it's almost all over.

But, here's the key thing: these "blue states" are not definitively as blue as they once were. RCP's Sean Trende observes:
If Romney and Obama head into this election on an even playing field, it will be very close, and both will have a few paths to 270. But if either candidate has more than a slight breeze at his back, the other will probably see very, very few paths to victory.
Also note that Romney has been chipping away at this--previously it was only 115 EV "in play" (the gray zone). Now it's 141. The trend isn't pro-Obama.

Team Obama's Troubles
Other than the trends--which, being trends, tend to change--what do we know about the current state of play? I think there are a few notable items that we have to look at. These are:

1. The Gay Marriage Play
Whether it was Biden's gaffe, blow-back from super-liberal donors (Google: Gay for Pay!), or a planned roll-out, the move has definitely shaken things up. No one is sure what will happen. The polls say most Dems and Independents approve of gay marriage--but when it's put to a vote it tends to lose. Why is this? No one knows. Hot Air has some good thinking on this:
Yeah, I think demographics are the key. According to the Pew poll I linked up top, fully 56 percent of seniors still oppose gay marriage. Among voters 18 to 29, it’s just 30 percent. Grandma and grandpa can be guaranteed to turn out while junior really can’t, so it’s grandma and grandpa who ultimately make the laws. (See also: Entitlements.) Beyond that, the national polls are typically of adults, not actual voters. It may well be that the average American adult shrugs at gay marriage, but shruggers tend not to make it to the polling place. In all likelihood opponents of gay marriage are more motivated, which means they’ll be overrepresented in the voting booth. And finally, it could be that there’s a slight NIMBY problem at work in state votes as opposed to national polls. Some people, when asked whether they support gay marriage in the abstract, might say “sure” because they’re dealing with a hypothetical. When suddenly they’re not dealing with a hypothetical but rather the prospect of lots of gay couples moving to their state to marry if no ban is enacted, the calculations for some fraction of those voters might change.
The reason I list this as a "trouble" is that it seems early in the game for a hail-mary play to me. Certainly no one is surprised that Obama thinks gays should be allowed to get married: but why say so now? To consolidate his base? That seems an odd play. The pay-for-gay thing smacks of conspiracy theory to me but I can't prove it didn't happen. I do know that Biden is an awesome gaffe machine--so my money is there. I think Obama got cornered and decided the only way out was through.

2. Team Obama's Opening Moves
The weakness that characterized McCain's '08 campaign was that it kept shifting messages. Was he "the right change?" Was his argument the Commander-In-Chief test? Was he cool on the economy or did he need help? (HELP!!). As he cast around looking for an exploitable weakness he burned valuable cycles and, eventually, lost.

Obama has something of a similar problem:

  1. Back in February Team Obama started experimenting with various slogans. They experimented with Winning the Future (WtF) and "Greater Together." Neither of these are great. In late April they rolled out "Forward." That isn't great either. Hope and Change was good and strong--but what now?
  2. Worse: the Bain attacks have proven problematic. The core message is, I think, a potential winner: Romney worked for the 1% and will continue to do so. It's a savvy approach and doesn't suck. But having Democrat NJ Mayor super-hero Cory Booker say your attack approach is nauseating doesn't help. Republicans pounced on it. He recanted. They pounced on that
  3. Romney and Obama are a lot closer in fundraising than people thought they'd be. Anyway: with Super PACs, the sky's the limit. Expect total saturation. If Obama were to have his 2008 edge it wouldn't matter when Sheldon Adelson donates 100MM to Romney's message.
On The Other Hand
On the other hand, Obama does have a few advantages. Not only is he the incumbent--but he's also a lot more likable. Romney seems to have to sequester himself from the press to a degree to keep from making mistakes. He really, really is the 1% and it shows. Forget about the bully stuff or the dog nonsense: Romney's persona is slightly fakey and he keeps talking about his buddies that own NASCAR teams. If he can't shut up about that he's going to get hammered.

And then there's the women / Latino factor. Romney has, according to at least one poll, closed a lot of the gender gap (from a fatal 19 points down to a mere 7). On the other hand, it looks like women may not be donating money to Team Romney ... and the total negative value is still pretty significant (that poll aside). Romney may have an edge with whites and white males especially--but he's still got a hole to fill.

I think the real conclusion here is that it's super tight and early to tell. Team Obama needs to get lean and mean. Romney needs to get softer and fluffier. If the economy tanks it's likely to go badly for O2--but if Greece doesn't burn? If the Euro holds out until Christmas? It could be The War On Women from now until November 4th.

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