For the small school of political analysis that draws its inspiration from the great French 17th-century philosopher René Descartes, the cardinal methodological rule is to begin from what one can know “so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.” The only important fact about the election contest today that meets this stringent threshold is that someone named either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will be declared president, most likely on November 7.
Beginning from this point of certainty, Cartesians are already at work surveying the possible alternative post-November 7 political landscapes. “I prognosticate. Therefore I am.”
The election of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney may be either a larger victory or a narrower one. The resulting four scenarios are as follows:
1. The larger Obama victory, which can be called “Vindication,” refers to a result in which the president wins by a margin of some 3 percentage points or more, in which the Democrats gain more than 12 seats in the House, and in which the Democrats, while losing a seat or two in the Senate, retain control of that body.
2. A narrower Obama victory, labeled “Hanging On,” describes a scenario in which the president ekes out a win by under a point and perhaps captures an Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote, maybe even by a considerable margin. (This result is what many polls suggest would be the outcome if the election were held today.) Democrats pick up only a few seats in the House, under 10, while Republicans gain a tie in the Senate or, against all odds, capture a majority.
3. A narrower Romney win, “Reversal,” describes a victory margin of under 2 points, a modest loss of 6 to 10 seats for the GOP in the House, and a gain of a couple Senate seats, still leaving Republicans short of a tie or an outright majority.
4. A larger Romney victory, called “Game Change,” designates a scenario in which President Romney is elected by a significant margin, 3 percentage points or more, where Republicans suffer minimal losses in the House, and where the GOP captures the Senate (which, in the case of a Romney victory, requires only a tie). This result will also bring some real surprises, including victories in states that few expected and upset wins in some of the Senate contests. To put a cherry on top, the GOP could pick up a net three or four governorships.
Assessing the probabilities of these outcomes is a task for ordinary punditry. But what is striking about the campaign thus far is that the scenario that was most likely just a few weeks ago, Vindication, appears least likely today, while the scenario that was the least likely at that time, Game Change, is today within the range of plausibility.
The two Obama victory scenarios, while quite different, share key points. An Obama victory, no matter what kind, means that Barack Obama keeps what he has already achieved. From Obama’s perspective, isn’t that mostly what this election is about? President Obama could do almost nothing new in his next term—indeed, he has proposed very little by way of new programs during the campaign—and he will still have accomplished the most important goals of his presidency, which include Obama-care and creating a much larger welfare state. If Obama wins, liberals and conservatives will go on to contest new issues, but they will do so on a new terrain that accepts the core of Obama’s changes.
An Obama victory also secures his place in the pantheon of great progressive leaders. On that imaginary liberal Mount Rushmore—perhaps to be carved out as a shovel-ready project for a new stimulus package—the face of Barack Obama will appear alongside those of FDR and LBJ. These are the three liberal presidents who did something big, something irreversible, in expanding the role of the federal government and altering the relation between citizens and the state.