The country thinks it already knows what will happen with this election. This is very bad news for Mitt Romney and not very good news for President Obama.
Romney is among the crispest dressers among major-party nominees, but he’s already begun to wear the dingy cloak of “loser.” Obama’s Intrade number is roughly 75—meaning that about three-quarters of those weighing in on the race via the trading site’s prediction market say he will win. The number fell from nearly 80 percent a few days ago. This week’s Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that voters expect Obama to win, by a 63 percent to 31 percent margin, even though the same poll showed Obama ahead only 49 percent to 47 percent among likely voters. (It’s worth noting that the same poll had Obama leading Romney 50 percent to 47 percent in early July). When people think you’re going to lose, you usually lose.
A sense of inevitability could undercut turnout among Democrats who assume Obama has already got the race won. Obama needs to keep stoking the fires, hence his admonition when his partisans boo Romney: “Don’t boo. Vote!”
This week’s USA Today/Gallup poll showed 64 percent of Republicans reporting they were more enthusiastic than in 2008 to vote in the presidential election. Only 48 percent of Democrats said they were more enthusiastic than in 2008. Granted, 2008 was a high-water mark for Democrats and something of a tsunami of despair for Republicans, and Obama doesn’t need 2008 levels of enthusiasm to prevail. But, as the data show, lower enthusiasm and lower turnout driven by the sense that Obama has already won could be a dangerous mix.
First, though, let’s look at the race and ask why voters believe Romney is already toast. The national poll numbers are tied, but the polls in the crucial battleground states mostly favor Obama by slight or comfortable margins. The RealClearPolitics.com average of all polls in the hotly contested states show Obama with the following leads: Florida, 3.0 percentage points; Colorado, 3.1; Virginia, 3.4; Iowa, 3.5; Nevada, 5.2; Ohio, 5.5; New Hampshire, 6.0; and Wisconsin, 6.7. Romney leads by 0.7 points in North Carolina, but his inability to break out in a state where Obama won in 2008 by less than 15,000 votes is symptomatic of his current electoral structural woes.
What’s worse for Romney, Obama is at 49 percent or higher in Florida, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. With these margins, he is favored to win Ohio, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, putting him at 269 electoral votes. Romney would have to win every other toss-up state to prevail.
That’s why it looks so bad for Romney. And yet, there are reasons to wonder what will actually happen.
Obama will not be reelected with a higher percentage of the popular vote than he won the first time (52.9 percent). His support will atrophy, though no one knows by how much. That’s a dangerous variable for any incumbent.
The USA Today/Gallup poll shows real fluidity in the race in another respect. Only 13 percent of respondents in the poll said both Obama and Romney would make good presidents. Back in 2008, a full 25 percent of respondents said that both Obama and Republican nominee John McCain would make a good president. These diminished expectations are a danger sign for any incumbent seeking reelection.
Also, right now, Obama’s RCP average in national polls is 49.0 percent to Romney’s 45.7 percent. Obama is almost exactly where he was on Oct. 2 four years ago. His RCP average then was 49.0 percent and McCain’s was 43.3 percent. Romney is closer than McCain was and has a more enthusiastic party behind him.
Let’s look at 2004, the race Team Obama has always felt this campaign would most resemble. On Oct. 2, 2004, George W. Bush led John Kerry in the RCP average, 48.7 percent to 44.3 percent. Romney is running ahead of where Kerry was at this stage of the race. Bush won a very narrow victory, 50.7 percent to 48.3 percent, capturing 286 electoral votes to Kerry’s 252.
Something important happened then that won’t happen now. Both candidates grew their party’s vote by substantial margins. Bush found nearly 12 million more votes over his 2000 total against Al Gore, while Kerry topped Gore’s turnout by more than 8 million votes. Kerry’s popular vote percentage declined vis-a-vis Gore, but only because Bush captured so many more votes than he did in 2000.
Obama’s reelection strategy is based on the core assumption that everything that could break for them did in 2008. And even though Obama has watched Romney stumble repeatedly and found him the biggest gift an incumbent could ask for—the “47 percent” remarks at the secretly-recorded fundraiser—the race remains close. Both campaigns know Romney will exceed the McCain vote (59,934,814) and Obama will struggle to match his 2008 total (69,456,897). That means lines are converging, and turnout will be determinative.
And here’s where the numbers reveal how important turnout is to both camps. From 2004 to 2008, here is how much GOP turnout fell in the key states: Colorado, 7 points; Florida, 4; Iowa, 2.1; Nevada, 7.8; New Hampshire, 4.4; North Carolina, 6.6; Ohio, 4.4; and Virginia, 4.3. For Democrats, the vote grew by 3.8 points in each of those states over that period except in Ohio, where it rose by 2.7 points.
For obvious reasons, the partisan gains and losses in these states nearly match each other. They will tighten in 2012. Lines will converge. Obama’s ahead. But the race is tighter than it looks.
This article appears in the Oct. 3, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.