At this stage of a tight presidential race, a refreshing transparency reveals itself to even the casual observer. How campaigns actually view the state of the race emerges in plain sight from the long-cloaked inner sanctum of polling, focus groups, and micro-targeting of voter preferences.
When President Obama suddenly rolls out a 20-page pamphlet summarizing his second-term agenda, voters know it was because the campaign discovered a hole in its data dug by GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s monthlong criticism. Presidents don’t dance to a challenger’s tune unless the polling data dictate they must. The same can be said for Obama’s aggressive, zinger-filled performance in the third debate. He needed to challenge Romney on facts and energize the slackers in his base.
Similarly during the last debate, Romney ran away from previous confrontations with Obama over the terrorist attack in Libya that killed four Americans—the reddest of red meat for conservatives right now. Instead, he spoke plaintively of “peace” and of war with Iran being the absolute “last resort,” because he knew he needed votes from nonaligned suburbanites—especially women. Romney also ignored Obama’s taunts because one-on-one jousting cost him in the second debate.
In short, Obama is acting like a slightly irked incumbent who needs to make up ground on a challenger he thought he had put away last summer. Romney is acting like a challenger who can’t afford to risk losing what he gained in the first debate, trying to siphon off voters still loosely attached to Obama.
The central question is whether Romney is surging to victory or merely merging into a lane of GOP support observable in previous presidential elections but insufficient to overcome Obama’s built-in demographic and ground-game advantages. The Romney campaign knows it will outperform John McCain’s turnout averages in all the vital swing states. Romney also knows that Republican voters outperformed Democratic voters in 10 swing states in 2004 (50.7 percent turnout to 48.3 percent). Republicans were competitive with Democrats in 2000 (47.9 percent to 48.4 percent). The blowout year was 2008, when Republicans lost the turnout contest to Democrats 45.6 percent to 52.9 percent.
What Romney doesn’t know is if he will hit the 2004 turnout in all the places he needs to and, even if he does, whether that will be enough. This is the fine line between surge and merge. If Romney merely merges back into a lane of historical GOP voting patterns, he may not win key states where demographic shifts have tilted the battlefield in Obama’s favor.
Nevada and Iowa, with six electoral votes each, are classic examples. Romney and Republican National Committee operatives won’t say it publicly but concede privately that Nevada is out of reach—largely because of Hispanic voters and Obama’s superior ground operations. Iowa remains fluid but, according to GOP operatives, has tilted back toward Obama in the past two weeks, for the same underlying reasons.
Obama retains a slim lead in Ohio, which has 18 electoral votes. Yet even Democrats note that his closing message looks and sounds a bit harsher than Romney’s—stump-speech sarcasm about “Romnesia” qualifying as Exhibit A. Obama is still ahead, but he’s running from behind.
“This has become the old way versus the new way,” said Joe Trippi, campaign manager for Howard Dean in 2004. “All the measurements are looking at the race through the old way, with undecided voters breaking to the challenger late in the race. The Obama campaign is based on mobilizing every single one of its voters to overcome the old metrics. Do we wake up and find out they have defied the proven political physics of the past five decades? Or does Romney reach escape velocity? The fact that [Obama’s team is] waging both campaigns—nervous and terrified of the first metric, superconfident and supremely certain of the second—tells you even they are not sure.”
Veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres sees danger for Obama but can’t quite chart a path to victory for Romney if he climbs from merge to surge. “The scariest phrase in politics and investing is, ‘It’s all different now,’ ” Ayres said. “If I had to choose between being up slightly without momentum and down slightly with momentum, I’d take the latter every time.”
Romney’s fortunes appear inextricably linked to Ohio. GOP strategist Mike Murphy says that the key metric there is the white vote. Romney remains in the low 50 percent range and needs to move higher. “If Ohio keeps moving up to a more ‘normal’ range of the white vote, say within the 55 percent to 57 percent range, I think Mitt can win,” Murphy said. To prevent that, Obama is pressing the issues of his tariffs against Chinese tire imports and expansion of the GM and Chrysler bailouts. Both play specifically to white voters in northern Ohio. In 2000, GOP voters outperformed Democrats 50 percent to 46.5 percent in turnout. In 2004, the GOP prevailed 50.8 percent to 48.7 percent. In 2008, Democrats triumphed 51.4 percent to 46.8 percent. Where Romney and Obama fall in this turnout continuum will, in all likelihood, determine the winner in Ohio and nationally.
In the closing weeks, Romney and Obama will shift operatives to Ohio. Obama has already begun to quietly suggest to field organizers in Florida that their time would be better spent in the Buckeye State. Republicans are doing the same with field staff in Nevada.
Romney is merging with historic GOP voting patterns in Ohio. No one knows whether this merge presages a surge to victory. That has yet to emerge in plain sight.
This article appeared in print as "Surge or Merge?"
This article appears in the October 27, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.