With six and a half weeks to go before Election Day, Democrats are feeling cautiously optimistic about President Obama's chances for re-election. Republicans are bullish on their odds of keeping the House. And both sides believe the battle for control of the Senate is a coin flip.
But politics isn't a static business, and events could always conspire to change those three assumptions. Here are the three questions left to be answered between now and Election Day:
1. Is It Really The Economy, Stupid?
If you told any political strategist a year ago that unemployment would hover just over 8.1 percent with a month and a half to go, Democrats would have hung their head in despair and Republicans would be jumping for joy. But it hasn't worked out that way, and President Obama holds significant leads in swing state polls. The campaign is still advertising in North Carolina, a sign that Mitt Romney hasn't been able to lock down perhaps the most conservative swing state on the map.
Obama's poll numbers have risen as voter optimism has increased. Recent polling shows more voters believe the country is headed in the right direction, and that they believe the economy will be in a better place a year from now. That jump is most significant among independent and Democratic voters, while Republicans are feeling more pessimistic. Even the stock market is feeling frisky: The Dow Jones Industrial Average is up nearly 1,500 points, about 11 percent, just since June.
That indicates the strategic underpinning of Romney's entire campaign -- that the sluggish recovery and still-lousy economy will lead to a referendum on Obama's tenure -- won't actually be the case. Romney's campaign seems to have acknowledged that shift of attitude; by selecting Rep. Paul Ryan as a running mate, Romney sought to portray the election as a choice, rather than a referendum. Romney's recent focus on foreign affairs and social issues further suggest the campaign no longer believes their heretofore exclusive focus on the economy will be enough.
The state of the race can still be shaken by a momentous event; Europe's fiscal crisis still looms as a potential threat. But voters are starting to feel better, and Romney's team is acting like the election is no longer solely about the economy.
2. Who Has Coattails?
Coattails, in the traditional sense, are often overstated. On Election Day 1992, Bill Clinton won seven states that also elected a Republican senator. Clinton won re-election in 1996 even as his party lost seats in the House. In 2000, George W. Bush won six states that simultaneously elected Democrats.
But this year, the presidential contest is likely to play a major role in several states -- to both sides' benefits. In Democratic-leaning states and swing states where he polls well, Obama is likely to draw out irregular voters. The millions national Democrats have spent over the last four years on turnout and voter registration have expanded the party's base in states like Ohio, Florida, Nevada and Virginia, all of which feature tight Senate contests. Sen. Scott Brown will have to win over a huge number of Obama voters -- perhaps as many as one in six -- to keep his seat. Linda McMahon, who is polling surprisingly well in Connecticut, will have to overcome a similar challenge if she can pull an upset over Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy.
Virginia stands out as a state where Obama's coattails could make the most difference. The series of polls showing Democrat Tim Kaine tied with Republican George Allen may actually understate Kaine's support; those same polls show Obama running about ten points better among non-white voters than Kaine is. Those voters are much more likely to stick with the Democratic ticket all the way down the ballot.
Obama's presence on the top of the ticket won't help Democratic candidates like Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Richard Carmona in Arizona or Bob Kerrey in Nebraska. Nebraska is all but in Republican hands already, and Carmona faces a tough climb against Republican Rep. Jeff Flake. But Heitkamp has been a pleasant surprise for Democrats, and polling shows her tied with Rep. Rick Berg. Heitkamp, like Brown in Massachusetts, will have to run 10 points or more ahead of her party's presidential nominee to win.
3. Do Super PACs Matter?
On its face, that's a ridiculous question. Through September 18, outside groups had made more than $450 million in independent expenditures aimed at influencing federal elections. In Virginia, Allen backers have spent more than $11 million against Kaine; Sen. Sherrod Brown has seen more than that spent against his re-election bid. With the single stroke of a pen, a wealthy donor can fund an advertising barrage bigger than a House campaign's entire budget.
But here's the thing: All that spending hasn't moved a lot of needles.
Polls show Brown's unfavorable rating has only risen slightly since the spending began. He still has a healthy lead over Republican Josh Mandel. Kaine advisors haven't seen his unfavorable numbers creep up, and he's only just started telling his side of the story in paid advertising. Super PAC spending played a big role in the Republican presidential primary and in several Senate GOP primaries earlier this year, but it's hard to find a concrete example in a general election matchup in which an outside group has really shaken up a race.
Candidate advertising has so far proven more effective than independent spending, especially advertisements that feature a candidate speaking directly to the camera.
House races are a different story. Both sides have only recently started advertising in those contests, and so far Republicans have a pronounced advantage. The National Republican Congressional Committee has outspent the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee by a more than two-to-one ratio since September 1. That gap will narrow, but it's clear from early spending that Republican outside groups have the advantage.
Whether they can actually move a race is a question that's yet to be answered.