Too many political observers see politics in an entirely binary way: Everything has to be either a “0” or a “1”; a race is either tied or it’s over; every election is either won or stolen. Some people never want to admit that their side lost. And some people think that a poll either tells them what they want to hear or is methodologically flawed—or crooked. It’s like an obnoxious sports fan (often found in Philadelphia) who views a ruling by a referee or umpire as either favorable or a bad call. Denial and simplicity reign.
The presidential election is neither tied nor over. Of the 16 most recent national polls using live telephone interviewers calling both respondents with landlines and those with cell phones (between 30 and 40 percent of voters do not have landlines and cannot legally be called by robo-pollsters), one has the race even, two have Obama with a narrow 2-point edge, five have 3-point Obama margins, two have 5-point Obama advantages, another pair have 6-point Obama leads, two have 7-point leads, and one has an 8-point Obama lead. This would strongly suggest that the Obama lead is between 3 and 6 percentage points; such brand-name polls as those by CNN, Fox News, and NBC News/Wall Street Journal are among those in that 3- to 6-point range.
Conversations with Democratic and Republican pollsters and strategists suggest that Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia are the most competitive swing states. Some high-quality private polling shows Romney with very narrow leads in both North Carolina and Virginia, but a few other equally sophisticated surveys show Obama with narrow advantages in those two states. At least one private survey shows Florida even, but most show the Sunshine State and Colorado with narrow Obama leads, in the small- to mid-single-digit range. Just a hair or two better for Obama but still quite close are Nevada and Wisconsin, followed by Iowa. Things really get ugly for Romney in Ohio and Michigan, and, finally, in Pennsylvania, which is no longer competitive. Ohio shows a 5- to 8-point lead for Obama in private polling. In Michigan, Obama’s lead is slightly wider, and in Pennsylvania, Romney faces close to a 10-point deficit. It is mathematically possible for Romney to reach 270 electoral votes without Michigan, Ohio, or Pennsylvania, but it is in reality exceedingly unlikely.
It would take a very consequential event to change the trajectory of this race. Time will tell whether Romney’s strong debate performance on Wednesday night was the event that he needed—particularly in swing states such as Ohio. But at least he energized his supporters and sent a clear message that the race is not over.
As for down-ballot races, my hunch is that there is a pretty good chance that we may not know which party will hold a majority in the Senate in the next Congress by breakfast or lunch the day after the election. With 10 seats in the toss-up category—five for each party—the Senate outlook couldn’t be more volatile.
Republicans can be confident that they will pick up the open seat in Nebraska, but they have to be very worried about their own open seats in Indiana and Maine. The latter is particularly troublesome for the GOP. Republican incumbents Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Dean Heller in Nevada are in very tight races; the odds of Heller winning are better than those for Brown. The newest entry on the toss-up list is the open Republican seat in Arizona, where Democrat Richard Carmona has pulled even or slightly ahead of GOP Rep. Jeff Flake.
Conversely, Democrats have to be most worried about hanging on to the open seat in Connecticut, where former pro-wrestling CEO Linda McMahon now has a narrow lead, and in Montana, where incumbent Jon Tester is locked in a nail-biter. The top of the ticket is a challenge for both McMahon and Tester. Open seats in North Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin are statistical dead heats, notwithstanding some public polls that show rather substantial leads for former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine over former Sen. George Allen in the Old Dominion.
A look at the polling data shows two inflection points in the presidential contest and many Senate races. The Democratic convention clearly had a positive impact for Democrats, while Republicans took a real hit after the release of the video of Mitt Romney suggesting that 47 percent of voters are basically deadbeats who see themselves as victims. We are now hearing reports of a similar drop for down-ballot Republicans in some districts, particularly in places like California and New York where Romney was already going nowhere. Many GOP candidates took a hit the week of Sept. 17, then stabilized the following week. They didn’t drop further but they didn’t regain any altitude, either.
For now, the GOP majority in the House seems fairly secure; The Cook Political Report currently sees GOP losses in the zero- to 10-seat range, well short of the 25-seat net gain Democrats need to gain control.
It’s always difficult to gauge how any event will be interpreted and what impact it will have on a campaign, but there is considerable evidence that the “47 percent” video did make a mark. Democratic pollster Peter Hart and his Republican counterpart Bill McInturff asked in the Sept. 26-30 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 832 likely voters nationwide, “Has what you have seen, read, or heard in the past couple of weeks about Mitt Romney and his campaign for president given you a more favorable impression of him or a less favorable impression of him?” Some 28 percent responded that they felt more complimentary about Romney, but 51 percent indicated that what they heard made them feel less likely to support him.
Romney had a six-week stretch where nothing broke his way. Now we’ll see if his debate performance was a turning point—or a brief interruption—in the campaign narrative.
Originally appeared in print as Defining Events
This article appears in the October 6, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.