With a week to go until the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney has a decided leg up on President Barack Obama.
The polls are clear. Since the fallout from the first debate in Denver on October 3, Romney has enjoyed a relatively durable lead over the president in the Real Clear Politics average of the national polls. While the lead is small, it has persisted over time, and, more important, history suggests that this is trouble for an incumbent. The only sitting president to mount a last-minute comeback against his challenger was Gerald Ford in 1976, and of course Ford still lost. Usually, late deciders in a presidential campaign either break for the challenger or split about evenly between the two sides.
The problem for the president is Romney’s strong and sustained lead among independent voters. Despite four years of boasting from the Democrats that they were in the process of transforming the electorate, the fact remains that voters unaffiliated with either party determine the outcome of national elections. And with these voters, Romney has a substantial lead. The most recent Rasmussen Reports poll shows Romney besting Obama by 13 points, 52 percent to 39 percent, among unaffiliated voters. Since 1972, the first year of exit polling, no candidate for president has won election while losing independents by such a wide margin.
What is driving this is, above all, Romney’s growing advantage on who can best handle the economy. The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll gives the Republican a 9-point lead on this issue, which remains the top determinant of most vote choices. The recent Associated Press-GfK poll found Romney with a 6-point lead on the economy among likely voters, as well as an 8-point lead on who can better handle the deficit.
More broadly, it looks as though Romney has passed a threshold among voters in terms of being an acceptable alternative. According to the Real Clear Politics average of the national polls, Romney’s favorable rating is about 49 percent and his unfavorable rating is 43 percent. That compares well with Obama’s rating of about 50 percent favorable and 45 percent unfavorable. In other words, it looks as though Romney has a lead because he has convinced a plurality of Americans that he is a decent person who can handle the tough issues better than President Obama.
And what of the state polls? Romney seems to have the edge in states whose electoral votes add up to 261 (with 270 needed for a majority), while Obama has the edge in states that add up to 237. Four states remain true tossups at this writing: Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin. If Romney carries the states where he has the edge—and wins either Ohio or Wisconsin—he will be elected the 45th president of the United States.
It is worth asking: How did we arrive at this point? After all, it was not long ago that pundits pronounced the Romney campaign dead and buried. All that was left was the voting, we were told. Now, Romney has a lead in the nationwide polls and the momentum in the swing states.
The announcements of Romney’s demise said a lot more about the bias of the mainstream media, as well as their ignorance of how voters make decisions, than it did about the Romney team. The reality was that this was always bound to be a close race, and even when Romney was down in the polls, he was laying the groundwork for a strong finish.
Much of an election outcome depends on forces outside anybody’s control; very little is within the power of a candidate and his campaign. Yet Romney managed to do the things he could do quite well.
He finished the GOP nomination season without dividing his party and without having to take positions on issues that would later alienate swing voters. He raised a tremendous amount of money. He picked a fantastic candidate for vice president. His convention was solid, if not spectacular. And his debate performances uniformly gave the impression that he is a decent man who is fluent on the issues and whose highest priority is exactly what the American people most want, a robust economy.
The Obama team thought it could effectively disqualify Romney from the presidency before the real campaign even began, but this was a -mistake. In truth, they committed the same error that so many in the mainstream press did: They underestimated Romney’s appeal as a candidate, which, as everybody saw in the debates, is in fact very strong.
And now the Obama campaign is in a real bind. With a week left and behind in the polls, the president must dislodge the voters’ impression that Romney is the better man to handle the big issues. Hence, Obama’s starkly negative tenor and tone over the last few days. More and more, his campaign resembles those run by losers in the modern era; there is a kind of annoyance and anger to his attacks, which so far are not resonating with average Americans. Perhaps before the campaign is over, he’ll repeat Bob Dole’s frustrated cry of “Where’s the outrage?”
The president could have done more. And if he ultimately loses, the comparison with Bill Clinton will be instructive. After his rebuff in the 1994 midterms, Clinton made a course correction that likely saved his presidency. He rightly interpreted the Democrats’ drubbing that year as a sign of public frustration with the drift of the government, and a demand for greater cooperation between the two sides. A modified direction and greater cooperation is exactly what Clinton delivered through 1995 and 1996, with the bipartisan welfare reform bill serving as capstone.
President Obama, on the other hand, basically ignored the 2010 midterm verdict. The public clearly was demanding greater comity between the two sides and a focus on solving the problems of the economy and public finances, yet Obama brokered no lasting deals with his Republican foes. Instead, he battened down the hatches, figuring that he could wait out the Tea Party storm, then castigate the GOP as a bunch of right-wing crazies who had made things worse.
That strategy seemed to be working until the debates, when Romney utterly shattered the mold Obama had cast for him. Now, the country is left with a choice: more of the same with Obama or a change with Romney. More and more, Americans are coming around to the idea that a President Romney would be a change for the better, which means that—barring some unforeseen shift in public opinion—Obama’s days in office look to be numbered.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.