Presidential campaigns aren’t decided on the last day of a race. They are decided in all the days and moments leading up to Election Day. They turn on the candidate who best puts together a lead going into the final voting in November, and who won or lost the important moments along the way.
In that way, this race in its final months is like a decathlon. Instead of individual sporting events, it is the combination of 10 moments that determines which candidate has the most points on Nov. 6.
Thus far, I would suggest there are have been five moments of significance. President Obama has either won or tied in each of these, allowing him to build up a small but significant lead over Mitt Romney. Polls, when considered as a group, speak to this lead, revealing a race that right now is trending overall (and in all important states) as somewhere between a 1-point and 6-point Obama advantage. Nearly every poll falls within this range.
I have listened to many Republicans try to point to one poll as indicative of the race and ignore all the other data available. This is what I call confirmation bias. It is when we ignore information that runs counter to what we want to hear and we look for information that confirms what we desire. It happens all the time—in politics, and in life.
They’ll need to abandon that tendency if they aim to win any of the important moments coming up in the next seven weeks.
Let’s look at five moments already conducted, then the five moments still on the horizon.
So far, Romney basically tied in his best event, which was picking a vice presidential nominee—Rep. Paul Ryan. He spent 10 days talking about something other than the economy and ended up with little to no bump. His next best event was the Republican convention, and at best you can say he tied this. The biggest takeaway was from a fading actor, Clint Eastwood, talking to an empty chair.
The next event on the calendar was the Democratic convention, and Obama won this going away, and ended up getting a pretty good bounce from it. Though the bounce didn’t completely last, it did settle into a pretty important 3-point lead.
Interestingly, the next two moments in the campaign were spontaneous ones that no one could have predicted. First was the Libyan tragedy and violence. In this case, the public judged Obama to have handled the crisis calmly and effectively while Romney’s precipitous statements were viewed by many voters negatively. An Obama win in this event.
Another unpredictable moment came with the release and coverage of a tape of Romney at a fundraiser in which the candidate talked disapprovingly of 47 percent of the country—an unforced error but a Romney loss in this event.
So we are left with five events to come that include three presidential debates in October, one vice presidential debate, and an unpredictable moment.
In order for Romney and his campaign to get back in this race and have a chance on Election Day, they are going to have to win convincingly at least three of these remaining five moments. And with voting already beginning early in many states, Romney is probably going to need to do very well in that first debate in Denver. That could be a make-or-break moment for his campaign.
The only way the Romney campaign can achieve all this is by accepting reality for what it is, not convincing itself anymore that everything is fine. His team must make a real change in the relationship they have with the voters they need to win in this election. And like in life, the first sign of self-respect is taking real accountability for how they got in this mess and accepting the hard truth of what they need to do to succeed. Let’s see if they have hit rock bottom and can turn things around for the five events left.