Lasting Impact Debatable
Mitt Romney is hoping that when the history of the 2012 campaign is written, the turning point will be seen as October 3rd, the date of his first debate with President Barack Obama. National polls have shown a bit of a Romney surge in the days since the debate, partly due to those who actually watched it and partly to those who heard about it through critical media reviews of the president’s performance. Pew Research and the Gallup polling organization now have Mr. Romney slightly ahead overall and that is beginning to cause some serious heartburn for Democrats, many of whom thought that a solid Obama debate performance might have put the race out of reach.
Watch the State Polls
But the latest CNN-ORC poll gives the president a 51 to 47 percent lead in the state of Ohio. Some earlier surveys by other organizations had given Mr. Obama a lead of up to nine points, but even the Obama campaign people acknowledge they probably aren’t going to win swing states like Ohio by nine or 10 points. So in that sense, the race has come back down to earth a bit. The good news for the president is that he’s at 51 percent in Ohio and now only has to maintain that lead for the next three-plus weeks. The bad news is Mr. Romney has cut into his lead and now has an excuse to camp out in Ohio for some of the next few weeks in hopes of a furious comeback that would blow a big hole in the Obama re-election strategy.
Remember, we focus on individual states because the U.S. president is elected through a series of 50 state elections (add in the District of Columbia too). In all but two cases, the winner of the popular vote in a state gets all of that state’s Electoral College votes (the exceptions are Maine and Nebraska where the results are based on votes in congressional districts). Out of 538 total electoral votes, a candidate must win a minimum of 270 to get elected president.
Both candidates start out with a strong base of red (Republican leaning) and blue (Democratic leaning) states where the results are fairly predictable. That covers about 40 of the 50 states that most experts can reliably predict right now which way they will go on November 6th.
The remaining eight to 10 states are the so-called “swing” or “battleground” states where polling indicates the election results could go either way. These are the states where both campaigns pour in the bulk of their resources in terms of television advertising, on-the-ground volunteers and candidate visits.
This year’s round up of swing states include (in my own order of importance) Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and North Carolina. This is why huge swaths of the United States are largely bypassed in terms of candidate visits and, to a lesser extent, TV ads.
California, New York, Illinois and Massachusetts, for example, are considered Democratic territory and not worth the effort to compete in for Republican candidates. Likewise, Texas, the deep South except for Florida, the Plains states like Kansas and Nebraska and the sparsely-populated mountain west (Utah, Wyoming, Idaho) are considered strong Republican areas and don’t get much attention from the Democrats.
The Next Game-changers
Democrats hope to start their counter-attack with a strong performance by Vice President Joe Biden in his debate Thursday with the Republican vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan. Mr. Biden is known for being a talker, but not always in a good way. He does have an experience advantage over Mr. Ryan but that doesn’t mean the audience won’t be spared any “Biden gaffes.”
At the very least, Democrats will expect a much more aggressive defense of the president’s record from the vice president and more of an offensive strategy aimed at the Republican ticket. In particular, Democrats will be looking for Biden to mention Romney’s comments on the “47 percent” of Americans who, he famously said at a private fundraiser, depend on government handouts and see themselves as victims. The president made no mention of this in his first debate with Mr. Romney.
October 16th a Key Date
But Democrats really want a much stronger performance out of the president in the next presidential debate on Tuesday. This will be a town hall format, which means it will largely be driven by questions from the audience that could make it a bit more unpredictable. Both candidates will have to be on their toes, but look for the president to show some aggressiveness to get back into the game.
As for the Republicans, they would be thrilled with Mr. Ryan holding his own against Vice President Biden and another spot-on performance by Mr. Romney in the second debate. The Romney debate win was so important because it lit a fire under wavering Republicans who had been looking at the polls before the first debate and almost conceding the race to President Obama.
Now Republicans are fired up across the board and that means intensified efforts in key states like Ohio, Florida and Virginia to get out the vote on November 6th and even before, thanks to early voting in many states.
The second presidential debate now shapes up as a key moment for both candidates, but especially for Barack Obama. He has a history of bringing his political “A game” when he needs to, and that will never be more important than next Tuesday.
Another dismal performance could easily spark panic among Democrats, which could lead to worries that key voters like younger women, students and Hispanic voters simply won’t come out in adequate numbers to vote on Election Day.
So let’s see how the candidates prepare for the next go-round and how they do. Mr. Romney senses a huge opening and his newfound tone as a former “Massachusetts moderate” could play very well with the remaining small pool of swing voters who are looking for an alternative to President Obama, though not one from the far right.
The president’s task is tricky as well. He has to reclaim some of the “fire in the belly” enthusiasm he had four years ago, mount an aggressive defense of his term and deftly pivot to the attack — all without looking desperate, mean or smug.
This will be a supreme test for two fairly skilled candidates. Both men have strengths, especially Mr. Obama with his soaring rhetoric. But that is less of an asset in a bare-knuckled debate where Mr. Romney has so far effectively put the president on the defensive and at the same time actually softened his image from hard conservative to aspiring moderate. And don’t forget, Mr. Romney has had much more recent debating experience (in the Republican party primaries) than the president.
If, in the end, Mr. Romney loses this race, he may regret not transforming himself back into a moderate earlier in the race. In hindsight, the Republican Party convention in August now seems like a bit of a waste since he made little progress in reshaping some of the negative views voters held of him. His decision to reach back into the past and bring out that moderate label, reportedly at the urging of his wife Ann and eldest son Tagg, could prove decisive, provided it didn’t come too late.