Where the Presidential Race Stands

A month ago, the conventional wisdom was that Romney was slightly behind, but he still had three chances to catch up: his VP announcement, the conventions, and the debates.

Two down, one to go. Picking Ryan seemed to arrest Romney’s slow slide, and the tiny bounce he got from the Republican Convention pulled the race more-or-less even. But then the Democrats had a much more successful convention.

Nate Silver comments:

the polling movement that we have seen over the past three days represents the most substantial shift that we’ve seen in the race all year, with the polls moving toward Mr. Obama since his convention.

The Gallup tracking poll (consistently one of the more unfavorable to Obama) now shows him with a 49-44% lead. That margin has been growing daily as more and more of Gallup’s 7-day window is post-convention. A PPP poll out Sunday showed Obama leading by 5% in Ohio, the largest lead that poll has given him since May. Obama has even pulled ahead 49-48% in North Carolina, a state he could only carry in a 2008-style landslide.

A month ago, Silver’s predictive model gave Obama a 72% chance of re-election. Today it stands at 80%.

Silver just crunches numbers. Let’s see if we can attach some scenarios to them. Romney’s 20% chance depends on events running in his favor, his message starting to take hold, and he and Ryan significantly outperforming Obama and Biden in the four debates.

Message. Romney’s most visible slogan is “Obama isn’t working.” The message is fundamentally negative, and it typifies Romney’s strategy. As much as possible, he has tried to keep the focus away from himself and his policy proposals. Every issue page on Romney’s web site begins with “Obama’s failure” and only later gets around to “Mitt’s plan”.

Often that plan doesn’t amount to much beyond platitudes. His promise on Afghanistan is to

order a full interagency assessment of our military and assistance presence in Afghanistan to determine the level required to secure our gains and to train Afghan forces to the point where they can protect the sovereignty of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban.

Withdraw troops faster? slower? not at all? The point seems to be to take advantage of an anti-Obama wave by leaving his own views as vague as possible, giving everyone reason to think he might do what they want. That might work if the general public hated Obama as much as the Republican primary electorate did, but that seems not to be true.

One recent Romney strategy is to sound more moderate on TV appearances, only to have his staff issue a statement later “clarifying” that the radical conservative position he took in the primaries is unchanged.

On abortion, for example, he told CBS:

My position has been clear throughout this campaign. I’m in favor of abortion being legal in the case of rape and incest, and the health and life of the mother.

But four days later an anti-abortion activist assured a conservative radio host that “health” was a mis-statement.

I have heard clarification from his spokesperson, restating what his position really is, which is rape, incest, life of the mother. That is his position.

So his position is clear, or maybe it isn’t. Or maybe there’s one position for a national audience an another for right-wing talk radio.

Sunday, David Gregory asked Romney about two popular parts of ObamaCare: Guaranteeing coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and letting young adults be covered under their parents’ plans. Romney seemed to endorse both:

I’m not getting rid of all of healthcare reform.  Of course, there are a number of things that I like in healthcare reform that I’m going to put in place.  One is to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage.  Two is to assure that the marketplace allows for individuals to have policies that cover their– their family up to whatever age they might like.

Then his campaign backed off to a position where the magic of marketplace would provide everything:

in a competitive environment, the marketplace will make available plans that include coverage for what there is demand for. He was not proposing a federal mandate to require insurance plans to offer those particular features.

And then there was a third position, in which people with pre-existing conditions couldn’t be dropped if they had been insured continuously. This, as Wonkblog points out, leaves out about 89 million Americans.

But if you just watched Meet the Press, you know none of that. Romney has re-assured you that what you like about ObamaCare will stay put.

The closer we get to the election, the more this vagueness will wear on both the moderates and the conservatives. I’m not hearing a message that has a chance to take hold. Sometime between now and November, Romney has to come up with a clear reason voters should vote for him.

Debates. The debates are likely to bring out the worst in both Romney and Ryan. Romney does not think well on his feet, and is prone to clueless gestures, like trying to shut Governor Perry up by challenging him to a $10,000 bet.

Both Romney and Ryan talk in abstractions, and are unconvincing or uncomfortable when talking about real people.

Finally, the debates will force Romney and Ryan to choose one set of facts and policies and stick to them.

Events. The public isn’t expecting a sudden turn-around in the economy, so continued sluggishness isn’t going to give them an October surprise.

October surprises tend to come from overseas, and a ticket without any foreign-policy or defense experience would be unlikely to benefit from them.

So while it is certainly possible to overcome the small lead Obama has taken, it is hard to construct a scenario where it happens.

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