By this time next week, there should be enough national and state-level polling data to present a pretty clear picture of where this election stands, post-Labor Day and after whatever bounces the candidates may have gotten from the conventions. But we have seen enough data in recent weeks to draw some preliminary conclusions about the contests for the White House, the Senate, and, to a lesser extent, the House.
The presidential race is still close and, in a tight election, either candidate can win. Any number of events, not the least of which are debates, campaign gaffes, and domestic or international developments, could put President Obama or Mitt Romney over the top. Although it is pretty clear that Obama has an edge over Romney in national and swing-state polling, the size of his advantage remains in doubt. Every event or development should be judged on whether it might change the path of this election.
My view is that if Obama is reelected, it will be despite the economy and because of his campaign; if Mitt Romney wins, it will be because of the economy and despite his campaign. This economy is an enormous millstone around Obama’s neck, yet he and his campaign have managed to secure the upper hand—albeit with a very tenuous grip. At the same time, despite an enormous advantage that the sluggish economy and the sentiment for change affords him, Romney and his campaign, to an astonishing degree, seem to have squandered too many opportunities and undermined his chances of winning.
It should be emphasized again and again that this campaign isn’t over and that the race is still awfully close. But without a change in the trajectory, it’s a good bet that Obama will come out on top. The questions are whether the opportunity will arise for that trajectory to change and whether the Romney campaign be able to effectively capitalize on it.
Looking at the math of the Senate a year and a half ago, Democrats were having to defend 23 seats and the GOP just 10. Democrats had seven open seats, compared with just two for Republicans; the arithmetic argued strongly that Republicans had a real shot at overturning the current 53-47 Democratic majority. At the time, it looked as if Republicans had at least a 60 percent, maybe even a 70 percent, chance of prevailing. Now, a 45 percent chance of a GOP majority is probably closer to the mark. It’s not that a pro-Republican tide has waned, but that developments in individual states have hurt Republicans more than Democrats, changing the status from “strong edge” for the GOP to “somewhat uphill.”
There are at least two important, yet seemingly opposing, dynamics at work in the Senate races. The first is an intensifying polarization that is making many contests more competitive and closer than they were even a month ago. Partisans, and even those just leaning toward one party or the other, have come home very quickly. This is true in Florida and Ohio, where Republican challengers have closed the gap against Democratic incumbents. This increased polarization is working against the GOP in Hawaii and New Mexico, where the party has fielded especially talented candidates. These challengers gave Republicans reason for hope in two Democratic-tilting states, but as President Obama has solidified his standing there, early GOP optimism no longer seems warranted.
The second dynamic is that neither party appears to have the wind at its back. As a result, candidates and the quality of their campaigns matter more than they have in the last three elections. This explains why Democratic candidates in Indiana and North Dakota are more than holding their own, making those two races in Republican-leaning states more competitive than they ought to be. Republicans are also benefiting from this. In Massachusetts, GOP Sen. Scott Brown is statistically tied with Democrat Elizabeth Warren, despite the state’s strong Democratic tilt. And, in Connecticut, Republican Linda McMahon has a lead over Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy, largely because she has run the better race to date. Perhaps whatever bias voters may have had against McMahon during her ill-fated 2010 Senate campaign because of her background as a professional-wrestling executive is no longer as much of a liability.
These strong and even sometimes contradictory dynamics have created much more uncertainty in the Senate picture in the past month. Now, 15 seats—10 held by Democrats and five by Republicans—can be called competitive. Ten or possibly 11 others can be considered legitimate toss-ups—six or seven held by Democrats and four held by Republicans.
The House still seems to be a hard-fought but fairly evenly matched fight, with little chance of a major shift in either direction. If there is a significant turnover, it will have been triggered by something that hasn’t happened yet.
This article appears in the September 15, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.