So here we are, it's September 24th. There are 42 days left until the election. Where are we? What calculus will determine who wins the election?
If you listen to the general mood, it seems like Romney is on the ropes and has the "stench of a losing campaign" - and Rs with presidential aspirations may even be looking ahead to 2016 at this point. But is that real? Let's take a look at it from a few angles.
Electoral math: (the map below is Karl Rove's take, partially because I find it interesting, and partially because it's a pain to grab a pic of the NYT map) -
Right now, most news sites believe that Obama has 237 electoral votes (either solid or leaning Obama) and there is a discrepancy on Romney, with some news sites saying he is at 191, some at 206. Rove is more circumspect in some ways (NH is a toss up in most maps, NC leans Romney in many), and more optimistic for Romney in others (VA is a lean-Obama in most places, for example and OR is pretty much going Blue - at least as much as NM).
Then there's Intrade, the gambling site, which has Obama winning 332-206.
538 says that (as of Friday, September 21st): "Mr. Obama’s chances of winning the presidential election are listed at 76.9 percent by the forecast model."
These maps are based on polls, and then a personal calculation based on the thoughts, feelings, experience of pollsters. And while there are some inherent preferences towards incumbents, this year has always been cast as an exception to that rule, so that's not what's going on here.
The Shape of the Election, Congress-Style:
One way to look at a national election is to see what's happening in each state, on what are called the "down-ticket races" - these more local races can have an impact on the presidential election, but can also be impacted by what's happening in the presidential race.
Charlie Cook, who is pretty much considered the best pollster on all things Congressional by people on the Hill, says that the map is shifting. The House is particularly interesting - the headline I'll point you to is "47 days out, a dozen rating changes." That's huge. People may think that things are all over the place in politics, but once you get down to the dynamics of individual congressional districts, there is a lot we know about what will impact a given race - and Cook knows it earlier than most other people. 12 rating changes by the Cook Report means that the field - at large - is in play and moving. It's a sign that the mood of the general electorate is changing the way professional pollsters are looking at the vote. There is a national feel in the electorate, and it's overriding many of the other factors at play in individual House races.
The Senate is moving, too. Nate Silver, who does the 538 number-crunching for The New York Times says:
Polls show key races shifting decisively toward the Democrats, with the Republican position deteriorating almost by the day...
The Democrats’ chances of controlling the Senate have increased to 79 percent in the forecast, up from 70 percent on Tuesday.
Had we run the model a month ago, based on polls through Aug. 19, the Democrats’ chances of maintaining Senate control would have been listed at just 39 percent.
The velocity of the change is unusual. Although Senate races in different parts of the country can sometimes move in the same direction, there was never quite this rapid a shift in our Senate forecasts in 2008 or 2010.
The forecast model is not doing anything particularly fancy; it’s just that an overwhelming number of Senate polls recently have shown the Democratic candidates’ standing improving. [Emphasis Mine.]
A 40% swing towards the Democrats retaining control of the Senate - in one month. And that's from a fairly conservative (not politically, but from a risk-averse-ness perspective) point of view. And that is based, I think, on the feeling and the perception of what's going on in the presidential race.
Here's a snapshot of the national mood that may be at play -
There are every kind of superstitious or weird ways to determine who will win an election. But presumably history can give us a bit of insight.
Early September Polls tend not to be instructive.
At this stage in the campaign, Barack Obama is in a strong position compared with past victorious presidential candidates. With an eight-point lead over Mitt Romney among likely voters, Obama holds a bigger September lead than the last three candidates who went on to win in November, including Obama four years ago. In elections since 1988, only Bill Clinton, in 1992 and 1996, entered the fall with a larger advantage.
And that's interesting, but again, it's based on numbers that don't look all that instructive. If you mine the Pew numbers, however, there are a couple of dynamics that seem more important (to me, at least):
I would pull out of the issues morass:
- Foreign Policy - which Democrats rarely lead on, and tends to give you more of an idea how men feel about the candidate (strong leader in the traits side is often pointed to on what men think, too),
- Medicare - which goes to the older vote, and to whether the line on Obama stealing money from Medicare has worked with older people - it doesn't appear to have, and
- Abortion - this is a proxy for birth control as well this year - it will matter with women, and if turnout is big among single women, it will matter, generally.
I would pull out of the traits:
- Takes consistent position - This is where Romney gets mushy on both the conservative edge and the libertarian edge - what will Romney actually do in office?, and
- The difference between the "connects well with ordinary Americans" numbers versus the "shares my values" numbers - this underscores what is missing from the reaction on the 47% gaffe: people don't think of themselves as "ordinary." This means that Romney gets more leeway than he should by strictly looking at the numbers on who is in the 47% - because plenty of people do not consider themselves the moochers, but the DO consider other people the moochers. It goes back to the politics of division and class.
But how do these rate, historically?
- Here's 2008, similar time (the traits questions just didn't link up well, too much on race and religion in the 2008 race) - and note that by this time in 2008 there had already been a debate:
- And here's 2004:
It's just too early to tell by poll numbers alone, probably, but you can tell even from these September numbers in past races that there are themes developing or developed in the minds of voters that will continue. The harder part to tease out is which themes will dominate by election day.
So if we don't know for sure at this point, what do we need to examine to see what's going to happen? Here is my short cut math for what actually matters in what is left of this presidential election -
- Obama Negatives:
- Bad Economy - it's a real challenge winning an election as an incumbent with a bad economy. Just ask Carter or HW Bush. As long as most people know somebody out of work and struggling, that will impact the election. Sure, Bush policies contributed, but Americans don't like whining, so if it appears that Obama is complaining about being saddled with a crap economy by W, they will react negatively, towards Obama.
- Contrarian "do nothing" Congress - Congress hasn't done much. That's a problem for Members of Congress. It's also a problem for the President, because most people don't understand that Congress has blocked most of the President's agenda - so when Republicans say Obama's plans haven't worked, that resonates, even though Obama hasn't really gotten to try many of his own plans. On the flip side...
- Inability to Move the Ball in Congress - The President has not been able to pull an LBJ and just get'er done.
- Obama Positives:
- Obamacare - It passed the Supreme Court test, it's coming into effect and it seems to be more good than bad: people do want health care, people don't trust Republicans on health care, and even Republicans may be better off if they didn't have health care and now they do (see: young Republicans who are now on their parents' plans).
- Detroit - This is the "things are getting better" meme. It's happening in states where R governors want to point to positive things (like Ohio and Virginia) like job growth and take credit for them, it's happening for everyone to see with the American Auto industry's impressive resurgence. The Democratic Convention did a good job of underlining this idea.
- Strategery - Obama's campaign is just better at it.
- Likability - Again, Obama is just better at this.
- Stronger Economic Policies - this may be biased. But like President Clinton, I just think the idea to put more money into infrastructure, state and local jobs, and things like unemployment insurance just make the most economic sense. Tax cuts don't create jobs.
- Foreign Policy Wins - This is a remarkable turn-around for Democrats, generally - maybe on the order of the Clinton-Balancing-the-Budget change. You see it in the change on foreign policy polling. And there are things to brag about: Osama bin Laden. Ending the War in Iraq without chaos. Setting a plan in place to end the war in Afghanistan - and fortunately for the President, Romney is NOT making the case that we should get out of Afghanistan sooner.
- Momentum -
- Convention (Clinton)
- Romney Joementum (see below)
- Romney Negatives:
- Flip-Flopping - It's a killer. Just ask John Kerry.
- Rich/Doesn't Pay Taxes - Oof. The optics suck. And they're true. The Obama ads saying Romney wants to lower his taxes tremendously by raising yours? They are passing the fact-checking with flying colors, AND they feel yucky. It doesn't help that Romney walks around all entitled and disparaging half the country.
- No New Ideas - How do you defend against the charge that this is Bush 2.0 (not really 3.0, HW was different)? By using the...
- Ryan Budget/Vulture/Vampire Capital? - It's unpopular, it's drastic, it doesn't help balance the budget, and according to the nuns, it's mean.
- Romneycare - How do you argue against Obamacare when you created Romneycare and publicly advocated taking it national? Does Romney even WANT to argue against Obamacare?
- Mormon - I'm not sure whether it will be a thing, but it may be one. Democrats are unlikely to use it. If Romney were running against Rove, it would be huge.
- Unlikable - see above.
- Conservative Pigeon-Holed Positions on abortion, birth control, immigration, health care, etc.
- Convention (Eastwood and the chair, no mention of Afghanistan)
- Romney Positives:
- Bad Economy - The single strongest argument is one that the Romney Campaign simply cannot seem to stick to. Everything they do pulls focus from the "are you better off?" question, but it's still a powerful question, particularly if anything goes wrong between now and the election.
- Private Business Bona Fides - these, I suspect, were largely responsible for the numbers on the economic policy until recently (Obama is now up on who can handle the economy better, he used to be lower than Romney, considerably).
- Looks Like a President - I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel, but if height can be a factor, why not looks?
- Ryan - Conservatives love him. He's dreamy. He's got actual policy ideas.
- Outstanding Game Changers:
- Economy/International Economy - a big European change, China having problems, etc.
- Really Poor Debate Performance - The debate itself is unlikely to change anything, but perhaps a real stumble could make a difference.
- Money -> Inundation of Negative Ads - We'll see, I just don't know, it's new territory to have so incredibly much money in the race. Will voters change their minds? Will they turn off the TV?
- Voter Law Changes - This is a big one. And it's coupled with voter suppression efforts. Who will actually vote? Which brings us to...
- GOTV Operations - The Obama folks are good at this. But Romney has the Bush folks, who are also good at this - this may in fact be the most effective part of the Romney Campaign.
There is definitely a "feeling" that Obama is winning and Romney is losing right now. I wouldn't discount that, because A) people like to vote for a winner, and B) if Romney keeps "losing" in the public mind, eventually he really will have that "stench of a losing campaign" and that will matter in terms of GOTV and people's attitudes when they walk into the polling booth - Americans don't like a "loser," so last minute choices may be just as much about who feels strong at the end. That said, all that matters is the votes. So who votes is the ball game. The changes in voter laws and the voter suppression and the GOTV, that will probably matter every bit as much as anything else we hear about in the interim.