Go to the right side of the blogosphere and you’ll find Romney supporters convinced that they are not only clearly on their way to victory, but expect a blowout. Despite the conventional wisdom that the race is neck and neck and the next two weeks will be exciting, they say it’s all but over. The claim is straight forward: the first debate changed the fundamental dynamics of the race and once Romney was deemed “acceptable,” he’s moved into a slight lead. Since late deciders almost always go to the challenger, he’s going to pad that lead going into the election and have a surprisingly easy victory.
It’s tempting to do just dismiss such talk as bravado or wishful thinking. After all, Obama supporters like myself got fooled in September into thinking that Obama was cruising to a crushing defeat of a candidate who couldn’t do anything right. Moreover the level of bluster has increased dramatically in the wake of the third debate, one which saw President Obama pretty soundly defeat Mitt Romney according to all post-debate polls. Indeed, the margin of victory was such that it seemed an inverse of the first debate, with Mitt Romney subdued and lethargic while Obama was energetic and on target. This looks like a brave attempt to try to push back against a backlash favoring Obama after that debate.
Yet their theory is plausible. Is it likely to be accurate?
Assumptions: The argument and assumptions they make are straight forward: 1) Mitt Romney now has both the momentum and the lead; 2) late deciders will break overwhelmingly for the challenger; and 3) it is too late for anything to upset the dynamic of the race.
Does Mitt Romney have a clear lead and momentum?: If you look at state and national polls the answer is no. Since the second debate polls have been rather stagnate, with Romney slightly ahead in an average of national polls, but still behind in most of the swing states. It appears the race has tightened with no one clearly ahead. Remember, when there is a margin of error of 3.5%, polls showing a one point lead or a candidate one point down are essentially tied.
Still, if one cherry picks a couple of polls (like Gallup and the recent movement in Rasmussen to put Romney up four), and adds to that the fact that more polls show a slight Romney lead than before, one can’t dismiss the possibility that Romney has momentum, though it certainly isn’t strong. So for assumption one: unlikely, but possible.
2) Late deciders will overwhelmingly break for Romney: There are two problems with this assumption. First, it’s not clear how many late deciders exist! Still, there are 3 to 5% who aren’t for either candidate in most polls, and if those broke overwhelmingly for Romney that could be enough to push him over the top in the popular vote, as well as in important swing states like Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin.
The second problem is more esoteric. Political junkies like to deal in generalities. Late deciders go to the challenger, no President since Roosevelt has won re-election with unemployment over 7.4%, and debates don’t change the trajectory of a race. Yet there are so few Presidential races in modern history that it’s hard to read too much into any generalization. Maybe late deciders usually break for the challenger, but in a race as tight and hard fought as this, it’s not clear they will. Just as the debates did seem to change the trajectory of the campaign, heuristics may be poor guides in predicting what will happen.
Assumption two: possibly true, but this election is unique, we don’t know.
3) It is too late for the President to recapture the momentum. This is the weakest assumption. The debate that just concluded Monday has a real chance to move the numbers. After debate one soft Obama support shifted to Romney. Much of that is now soft Romney support. If some shifts back to Obama it could make a big difference and essentially assure Obama of a winning electoral map.
Beyond that is the impact of early voting and the Obama ground game. Obama’s network is more extensive than in 2008. This has to be what worries Republicans the most. The goal of get out the vote (GOTV) efforts is to get unlikely voters to the polls (as well as assuring likely voters do vote). The Democrats have always been dogged by the fact that their supporters don’t vote with the same regularity as do Republicans. That’s why registered voter polls tend to show a decent Obama lead. If team Obama can execute a winning ground game that could push the election further in their favor, especially in the swing states.
Moreover, in two weeks there can be small and large things that create slight shifts. There are a number of “soft supporters” for Romney, the idea they can’t break back for Obama is simply wrong. So while time is short, assumption three is weak.
The Romney campaign has always tried to create a sense of inevitability that they’d win — in the summer they worked hard to try to define Obama as a “failed President.” It didn’t take. Yet this has been part and parcel of their strategy since the primaries – exuding confidence that they’re cruising and the other side is choking. It’s not surprising this is the spin coming out of debate three, especially after Romney fared so poorly.
Many Romney supporters truly believe this. What they’ve done is take a plausible scenario and in their mind make it likely, even near certain. I can sympathize. I did the same last month when it appeared Obama was cruising to victory. Obama supporters were wrong then, Romney supporters might be wrong now.
After all, most objective analyses show the polls tight and give Obama a slight edge in the swing states. Add that to a commanding debate performance and it’s hard to conclude that the race is anywhere close to over. Two weeks is a life time in politics, anything can happen.
If in the next few days the polls shift more to Romney, or Obama gets no bump from the debate, the “Romney romps” scenario becomes more likely. Note that the tracking polls will take awhile to register an Obama bump — especially the seven day ones like Gallup. RAND is an interesting poll to watch for trends. The state polls will be key, especially Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada and Florida. Also watch for news on early voting and the Obama ground game. It’s hard to judge what’s happening, but there might be hints.
To be sure, Romney’s supporters may be right, and by November 6th the polls could have swung decisively in his favor, even in the swing states. In two weeks instead of celebrating, Democrats might be planning the fight for 2014 with a renewed urgency. But the effort to exude Romney inevitability is bravado and bluster, it’s still too early to know for sure. We still have a long way to go.
UPDATE: An added tidbit – Ezra Klein of the Washington Posts note that traders have been putting massive Romney bets in intrade to try to manipulate the market and make it appear Romney is rising. Usually those upswings are short term as real investors recognize the chance for some ‘easy money’ off the manipulators.