Here’s a rule of thumb for campaigns: When they have to start telling supporters not to worry, it’s probably time to start worrying.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s top pollster Neil Newhouse issued an unusual early morning memo on Monday assuring Republicans that the campaign remains on track to win the White House. Newhouse’s declaration wouldn’t be news, except for the fact he was trying to dispel the creeping conviction that President Obama has opened a small but significant post-convention edge over the GOP nominee.
The new conventional wisdom was hardened by two polls released on Monday, from Gallup and CNN/ORC International, both of which showed a once-deadlocked race now leaning slightly toward Obama. Among likely voters in the CNN/ORC survey, a slice of the electorate that is generally more Republican-leaning in this election, Obama leads the Republican standard-bearer 52 percent to 46 percent, with a margin of error of 3.5 percent.
In his memo, Newhouse dismissed Obama’s convention bounce as a temporary “sugar high” among voters, and he pointed to a series of state polls in New Jersey and New Mexico that showed a closer-than-expected race. But his optimism doesn’t account for the reality that after two of the most important weeks in the presidential campaign — the convention weeks — and with a scant two months left to win over the electorate, the president has seized a clear advantage.
“The net result of both conventions is that President Obama has established a lead that is outsized against where he has typically been against Romney,” said Steve Schmidt, GOP nominee John McCain’s top political adviser in 2008. “When you get behind in a race where there are as few [persuadable] voters as there are in this one, the chances and opportunities to make up ground become more and more difficult.”
Of the conventions, he added, “The numbers didn’t break the way you wanted.”
The polls aren’t Romney’s only problem. The Obama campaign announced in the wee hours of Monday morning that it had out-raised its Republican counterpart in August — the first time since April the Romney campaign didn’t collect a bigger sum. The haul — fueled, the campaign says, by more than 300,000 new donors — signals that the president’s heretofore underwhelming fundraising machine is ramping up for the homestretch.
“That is a critical down payment on the organization we are building across the country — the largest grassroots campaign in history,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement.
Add to the GOP campaign’s mounting pile of problems an awkward trio of interviews during the weekend's Sunday morning shows, in which Romney running mate Paul Ryan struggled to explain why the Republican ticket wouldn’t reveal which tax loopholes it plans to close and why Ryan was bashing the president for supporting provisional defense cuts he himself voted for.
Romney had his share of awkward television moments as well. His campaign was forced to issue a series of late-night clarifications about whether he would ban insurance companies from denying coverage for people with a preexisting medical condition. The former Massachusetts governor said in an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press that he would retain the part of Obama’s health care law that instituted the ban, but his campaign later qualified the statement to say Romney’s proposal would apply only to those who already had insurance coverage.
Obama spokesman Lis Smith said in a statement on Monday, “Mitt Romney knows it’s political suicide to level with the American people about his ‘secret’ agenda, so he’s evading the truth at every turn.”
Republicans do have reasons to remain confident about the race. As pollster Newhouse argued in his memo, and as many party leaders asserted in interviews to National Journal on Monday, the race hasn’t fundamentally changed: The economy is terrible, and voters have widespread doubts about whether the president is the right leader to turn things around. Their argument, they say, was bolstered by Friday’s weak jobs report.
“I don't think we can read too much into one or two days’ worth of polls, especially since they come at the end of the Democratic convention,” said Frank Donatelli, a longtime GOP operative. “Let’s look at the end of the week to see where we are. I continue to think this is a very close race, especially given the very disappointing jobs numbers last week.”
The Romney campaign suggests the polling leans in Obama’s favor because his convention had a natural advantage of being second, while the Republicans were hindered by fading memories of their gathering in Tampa and by Hurricane Isaac, which forced them to cancel a day of convention events. Although Romney did not get a bounce in his topline poll numbers from the convention, the event’s emotional testimonials of his wife and others on stage seem to have helped make him more relatable to voters, which could help his campaign regain traction by the first presidential debate, scheduled for Oct. 3 at the University of Denver.
“I think the campaign has always thought this way, where you are Sept. 10 is not really important,” said one Romney adviser. “Where you are at the eve of the debates is important. I haven’t seen any evidence the campaign is heading in a radically different direction.”