Dan Balz’s WaPo article labeling the next week as the campaign’s most important is a day late and a dollar short. The popular notion that there are potential game changers built into the next seven days of the campaign – that Obama has a do-over in the final two debates – is malarkey. The two most important weeks occurred with Romney’s historically decisive victory and Ryan’s solid, workmanlike follow-up, both which conveyed the only clear vision on the offing in 2012.
Fact is, there’s only one debate remaining – the foreign policy tangle on October 22nd. Tonight’s meeting is a ‘townhall’ – an informal yet decidedly civil Q&A format that plays to Obama’s stylistic strengths but denies him the debating opportunities he needs to force a substantive game change. With questions posed by voters live from the audience, answers will have to be directed to the audience, not the other candidate or a media go-between. This makes tonight’s opportunities for direct, pointed debate limited. This is especially true on the domestic policy front, which unlike the October 3rd debate, will split stage time with foreign policy questions.
Just how limited becomes clear once we quantify things. According to the rules of townhall, there will be only one minute of direct engagement between the candidates for every four minutes of domestic policy Q&A. (The candidates will have two minutes each to respond to a question, followed by one minute of discussion between the candidates prompted by the moderator.) Thus, only nine of the 45 minutes covering domestic policy will allow for Obama to actually debate Mitt Romney. That’s compared to the 90 minutes of debate Romney dominated two weeks ago. In other words, 90 percent of Obama’s chances to win substantive debating points on domestic policy have already come and gone. There will be plenty of chances for Obama to come across as more engaged and in touch with the depth of the country’s problems, but little chance of him overturning the clear preexisting verdict on domestic policy substance. That initial verdict will continue to color perceptions of the candidates as they try to sway and motivate voters down the stretch.
Thus, barring a serious gaffe or an October surprise from the Obama campaign, the electorate will continue its drift towards Romney and the clear shift in the national polls will begin to fully color state polling. Add in the tendency for national media polls to over-sample Democrats (essentially forecasting a re-run of Democrat’s 2008 turnout advantage) despite plenty of evidence that Republicans are slightly but meaningfully more enthused than Democrats (which suggests turnout that splits the difference between 2008 and 2010’s slight advantage for Republicans) and all the evidence points to Romney winning a competitive but clear national popular vote victory – something on the order of Bush’s +2.4 margin over Kerry in 2004. The race to 270 in the electoral college will be more suspenseful, if only because of the late returns from swing states like Colorado and Nevada and the close race expected in Ohio. Romney may garner fewer than 300 electoral votes but enough to make Ohio’s 19 votes superfluous in the final tally (e.g., 291).
This is unsurprising given how badly Obama’s character assassination campaign has failed. It’s ironic, in a way. Democrats spent years – and Obama part of his first State of the Union address – warning against attacks ads funded by shadowy groups with undisclosed donors, only to go ahead and base their entire strategy in 2012 on pouring unprecedented money towards smearing Romney before the Republican National Convention. And when the candidates finally took the stage to make their case in their own words with rebuttal as a built in fact-checker, Romney became more popular and Obama less so – to the point where Obama’s vaunted likability edge has vanished. Knowing his strategy has failed, why should anyone expect Obama to win reelection?
The only question left is relative turnout on November 6th. And that is quickly becoming a question of how much the skewed sampling models utilized in media polling (i.e., non-Gallup and Rasmussen efforts) will lay the foundation for a ‘voter suppression’ narrative when the Democrat advantage inevitably falls short of the 2008 experience.