We’re just eleven days away from the Presidential Election, or more accurately, eleven days away from the end of voting. The news says the race is tight, but you can still find a wide range of outcomes predicted by savants and would-be wizards. While I have the same expectation for the outcome that I have published since August, I also recognize that a great many things can still happen to change that outcome and decide the margin. What I find most interesting at this point, is the basic theory behind each candidate’s strategy.
First, the Obama campaign. After winning the 2008 election fairly easily, the Obama Camp entered this year with understandable confidence. With no primary competition in the Spring, and generally high likability all year long, President Obama did not appear to expect serious difficulty in earning a second term. But as the Spring turned into Summer, the race began to tighten, and by October it was clear Obama would have to fight to win a second term. What started as a relaxed attitude became tense as Obama aides and campaign directors found themselves looking up at Romney in national polls. The narrative from Obama’s campaign now is simple – stay on message and protect the firewall. That word, ‘firewall’, shows up a lot. It’s the idea, also voiced in general over the past couple months, that Obama controls too many states for Romney to win in the Electoral College. They say that if Obama simply holds what he has now, he wins. No worry about the national polls, it’s all about the states.
Next, the Romney campaign. Romney understood going in that he’d have an uphill fight, but voter displeasure about the economy and Obama’s failed promise of bipartisanship gave him hope that he could win the election. Romney’s team considered the election as an asymmetric campaign, where Romney first had to establish himself as a viable candidate in voters’ eyes, then prove he was a better choice than the incumbent. The early summer looked daunting, but Romney remained disciplined and made a number of important decisions which were designed for long-term effect, rather than short-term splash. This was why Romney enjoyed no bounce from his convention, yet exploded in support after the first debate. Romney’s strategy worked to first consolidate his electoral base, then build a national appeal to open opportunities.
With polls in disagreement and less than two weeks to go, these two concepts of the election now run head-on into each other. If Obama is right, Romney will enjoy some good poll numbers but will lose in just enough swing states to give the incumbent four more years. If Romney is right, then President Obama will appear to be closer than he really is, right up to Election Night, when the actual results will herald the end of the Obama Administration after this year. The salient point, in my opinion, to this election, is the fact that no political firewall exists.
There is no shortage of punditry to promise this outcome or that, but in the end the election is numbers-driven And it’s in the numbers where Mister Obama’s firewall proves illusory.
Let’s start with the national polls. Rather than go through all of them, let’s look at the most prominent polls with polls in September and October. To keep it simple, let’s look at Obama’s support last month and now:
Rasmussen: Sept 16 at 45%, Oct 24 47%, gain of 2
Gallup: Sept 27 at 49%, Oct 25 at 47%, loss of 2
ABC News/WaPo: Sept 29 at 49%, Oct 23 at 48%, loss of 1
NBC News/WSJ: Sept 30 at 49%, Oct 20 at 47%, loss of 2
FOX News: Sept 26 at 48%, Oct 9 at 45%, loss of 3
Now let’s look at Romney’s support last month and now:
Rasmussen: Sept 16 at 47%, Oct 24 50%, gain of 3
Gallup: Sept 27 at 45%, Oct 25 at 50%, gain of 5
ABC News/WaPo: Sept 29 at 47%, Oct 23 at 49%, gain of 2
NBC News/WSJ: Sept 29 at 46%, Oct 20 at 47%, gain of 1
FOX News: Sept 26 at 43%, Oct 9 at 46%, gain of 3
In every major poll, Romney has gained since last month. Even before the debate, Romney was doing well, and since the first week of October, Romney has taken a clear lead in national polls. That’s momentum, folks.
So, OK, let’s look at some state polls. After all, the Obama people tell us that’s where the ‘firewall’ is.
Rasmussen: Sept 13 at 49%, Oct 24 at 48%, loss of 1
FOX: Sept 18 at 50%, Oct 24 at 45%, loss of 5
ARG: Sept 27 at 49%, Oct 14 at 47%, loss of 2
Rasmussen: Sept 13 at 48%, Oct 24 at 50%, gain of 2
FOX: Sept 18 at 43%, Oct 24 at 47%, gain of 4
ARG: Sept 27 at 47%, Oct 14 at 48%, gain of 1
Looks like the ‘firewall’ failed, hmm?
Rasmussen: Sept 12 at 48%, Oct 18 at 46%, loss of 2
SurveyUSA: Sept 9 at 48%, Oct 18 at 47%, loss of 1
AR: Sept 22 at 50%, Oct 11 at 46%, loss of 4
Rasmussen: Sept 12 at 46%, Oct 18 at 51%, gain of 5
SurveyUSA: Sept 9 at 44%. Oct 18 at 46%, gain of 2
ARG: Sept 22 at 45%, Oct 11 at 49%, gain of 4
Rasmussen: Sept 12 at 47%, Oct 23 at 48%, gain of 1
CBS/Quinn.: Sept 24 at 53%, Oct 20 at 50%, loss of 3
PPP: Sept 30 at 49%, Oct 20 at 49%, no change
Rasmussen: Sept 12 at 46%, Oct 23 at 48%, gain of 2
CBS/Quinn: Sept 24 at 43%, Oct 20 at 45%, gain of 2
PPP: Sept 30 at 45%, Oct 20 at 48%, gain of 3
Again, Romney has momentum.
(Real Clear Politics source for the poll numbers)
The fact is, Romney has been trending up in battleground states, even ones that Obama’s campaign figured they had locked up just a few weeks ago.
Well, there’s a problem with the ‘firewall’ theory. A physical firewall is there to prevent fire from reaching you, while voters can change their mind … or just stay home and not vote. For Obama’s firewall theory to work, he has to not only convince voters to stay with him, those voters cannot be impressed by the challenger. Now, both Republicans and Democrats have a base of loyal voters that their candidates can depend on, but that’s the point – that’s the base, the bottom level that you get whether you work much or not. If you look at past elections, you can see how much of that base incumbents can lose. Carter, for example, was in dismal shape in 1980, and so was GHW Bush in 1992. They stayed competitive in their races, but when it came crunch time, their base level was too low to protect them. A successful incumbent has to build on their base and gain support, as we saw happen with Bush in 2004, Clinton in 1996, Reagan in 1984, Nixon in 1972, and Eisenhower in 1956. Actually, that list is much longer, but you get the idea. The only way to actually have a firewall to use is to build one on top of your base, not hope you can pump up support in a few targeted states.
There just is no ‘firewall’ for Obama this year.
But there’s more. In 2004, John Kerry won twenty states plus DC. In 2008, Barack Obama claimed 28 states plus DC, meaning he took 8 states that Bush won the previous election. The thing about that is that there’s no real reason to say those same eight states could not flip back to the Republican. Some states are certainly loyal to one party or the other, but there’s a reason some states are known as ‘battleground’ or ‘swing’ states – it’s frankly naïve to imagine that an incumbent has those states locked up, and only a little less silly to expect that personal appearances or spending on commercials will automatically win a contested state. And the Obama camp is finding out that fact just a bit late in the campaign.
One fact that gets lost in all the talk, is that Obama has never run as an incumbent before. In all of his previous campaigns, Obama was stepping up to the next level, from running for state senator to U.S. Senator to President of theUnited States. So Obama is only now learning that incumbents face a different landscape and conditions than do challengers.
It’s not hard to figure out that the national mood is different this year, from 2008. That year, the disgust with conditions blamed Republicans as the incumbent (even though Democrats controlled Congress), and Mister Obama promised not only a fresh approach but cooperation with his political opponents. Since then, the economy has become weaker and the job market absolutely dismal, and the tone of the Obama Whit
e House is at turns strident or arrogant. Even as President Obama explains to voters what he wants to do with the next term, he has never properly explained why he did not accomplish the promised results in his first term.
Obama could win, of course. Romney’s recent surge has, at best, given him a narrow lead and the state polls remain very much in doubt. But the trend is certainly on Romney’s side, as evidenced by the Obama camp’s attempt to denounce poll results and internals.
The Democrats are correct to some degree, in that the states will determine the electors, who in their turn will decide the Presidential election. At this point, we can consider the states safely locked up for Obama or Romney, where the candidate has 54% or more support in the polls (state polls have about a 4% MOE):
Obama: 9 states (including DC), 122 Electoral Votes
Romney: 11 states, 93 Electoral Votes
That means that 31 states and 323 Electoral Votes are statistically in play. Let’s next look at additional states where the candidate has a lead greater than the 4-point margin of error plus the undecideds:
Obama: 4 states, 43 Electoral Votes (total now up to 13 states, 165 Electoral Votes)
Romney: 7 states, 59 Electoral Votes (total now up to 17 states, 152 Electoral Votes)
165 to 152 is a lot closer than you hear about in the news, isn’t it? It means that 21 states remain in play, even this close to the election. So what about those states? Without getting into arguments about party weighting on the polls, one fairly undeniable point is how these states come down to how the undecideds break. That is, Obama’s camp believes they will break to the incumbent while Romney’s team expects them to break for the challenger.
So, both campaign teams are chasing the undecideds. Romney has been gradually winning them over, and will continue until he reaches either his ceiling or the election finishes. But Mister Obama has a different condition. Here’s why:
Incumbents deal with three kinds of voters. There are the people who voted for him, whom he keeps as long as he does the job as he promised, voters who dislike him and won’t vote for him no matter what, and voters who did not vote for him but will consider voting for him if they believe he did a good job. That’s basically why Presidents who win re-election do so with a better percent of the vote than the first time. Obviously, you can’t add people to your side who are already on your side, so incumbents win the re-election by keeping their base energized, by making their opponents feel they are not able to win, and by convincing the open-minded that they have done a good job. So, it comes down to the record, not the marketing.
Challengers, on the other hand, start empty and have to win over folks. It’s true that the challenger in the Presidential general election gets to claim the support of his party once he wins the nomination, but as anyone who ever ran in a primary can tell you, winning that nomination is grueling. That’s why even a poor candidate is able to stay somewhat close; you don’t get to the general election unless you know how to campaign. Once he has the nomination of his party, the challenger starts a new race, where he has to win over the nation. He gets the voters who rejected the incumbent, provided they are mad enough to be sure to vote, but remember, if the incumbent has done a good job, the incumbent already has some of the voters who did not vote for him the first time, so the challenger is at a disadvantage. This, basically, is why the Obama camp believed that it was too late for Romney to win.
But the problem is where the new voters come from. That is, when polls show the incumbent President is enjoying good Job Approval polls, he’s got voters behind him and all he has to do, is not blow it. But if he falls below 50% in Job Approval polls, history shows he is in trouble, because once voters walk away from an incumbent, they either vote for the challenger or they stay home. When the challenger knows this, he can target those voters. This, in short, explains Romney’s debate strategy, and why the polls rewarded him so well in October.
The short version is that the remaining undecided voters will either vote for Romney, or they will stay home.
There just is no ‘firewall’ for Obama this year.