So where are we, four weeks out? Romney suddenly finds himself with a lead in the polls, making liberals panicked and conservatives jubilant -- an interesting change of pace.
But I actually see more continuity than change here. And allow me to quote one pollster who has had a solid read on the true state of the race for months (he is also the only pollster who had an accurate read on Obama-McCain from the Lehman collapse onward, and the first to see the 2010 wipeout coming before anybody else). Scott Rasmussen:
We have reached the point in the campaign where media reports of some polls suggest wild, short-term swings in voter preferences. That doesn’t happen in the real world. A more realistic assessment shows that the race has remained stable and very close for months. Since last week’s debate, the numbers have shifted somewhat in Romney’s direction, but even that change has been fairly modest. Still, in a close race, a modest change can have a major impact. Over the past 100 days of tracking, Romney and Obama have been within two points of each other 72 times. Additionally, on 89 of those 100 days, the candidates have been within three points of each other.
I think this is spot on. In fact, I would suggest five enduring truths about this election, all consistent with Rasmussen’s polling data.
First, both sides will have locked in at least 47 percent apiece by Election Day. This runs close to the historical, long-run trend for both parties. Over the last quarter century, neither party has pulled in less than 45 percent of the vote, controlling for major third parties. If presidential politics were a football game, it would be fought strictly between the 45 yard lines.
Second, this leaves a tiny portion of the vote truly undecided. Excluding the big challenge from Nader in 2000 and Perot in 1992 and 1996, third parties have been able to pull in about 1 percent of the vote. So, if both sides have 47 percent and 1 percent will back somebody else, that leaves roughly five percent of the electorate up for grabs.
Third, these voters are not highly engaged in the electoral process, and they regularly make up their minds late in the cycle. They can, however, temporarily swing one way or the other because of shifts in the news cycle – e.g. Bill Clinton’s DNC speech or Romney’s debate performance.
Fourth, these disengaged voters are not happy with Obama’s performance in office. The matrix of issues that they care about – the economy, the deficit, and gas prices – do not favor this president. On top of that, they tend to disapprove of Obamacare.
Fifth, and most important, these voters are not going to fall into Romney’s lap. He has to convince them that, if they support him, there is a better chance that the country will improve than if they support Obama. Last Wednesday’s debate was important step in that direction, but it was just a step.
This is why Sean Trende was right on the money yesterday when he pointed out that, absent various, fleeting news shocks, this race has had a tendency to settle into a dead heat, with both candidates right around 47 or 48 percent of the vote.
Another point where Trende was spot on: Team Obama is running a bandwagon campaign. In fact, it has been running such a thing since it won the Iowa Caucus all the way back in early 2008. The idea is to convince the country that Obama is a sure winner – so why not jump on board? Thus, the president and his team have tried to create news at the exact moment the race begins to settle back into a tie. That explains perfectly the timing of the attacks on Romney – Bain Capital, tax returns, and the “47 percent” comment – all meant to inflate Obama’s numbers artificially above the rough 47-47 tie we should be seeing.
What that means is that conservatives should be on guard for Team Obama to try to get the bandwagon moving again – be it through some artificial scandal or just working their contacts in the press to get good coverage for the incumbent. This is, after all, in its very nature; Team Obama must hate the fact that, as of the end of the day yesterday, it was actually down in the national head-to-head polls.
Too many conservatives were bewitched by the Obama campaign’s bandwagon efforts through September. They were demoralized as the Democrats and their friends in the media transformed a fairly typical convention bounce and a weak, three-point lead into a sure sign that the race was over. Democrats were pushing that story because it moved the bandwagon forward, and they will try to get it up and running again soon.
But make no mistake: what we have here is a very close race in an evenly divided nation. Both sides should lock down 47 percent, and it will be a fight to the finish for the tiny sliver of the electorate that is truly up for grabs.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.