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Into the Final Days of the Campaign

November 1, 2012

We’re in the home stretch now and most of the indicators point to a small but persistent lead for President Barack Obama in most of the handful of states that will decide the U.S. presidential election on Tuesday.

The latest Quinnipiac/CBS News/New York Times public opinion poll of three key battleground states showed the president and Mitt Romney basically neck and neck and in Florida and Virginia. But the survey gave the president a five point lead in Ohio, a state that both campaigns are desperate to win. Other recent polls give the president an edge in other key states like Iowa, Wisconsin and New Hampshire.

The latest batch of state polls was some of the best news of the week for the Obama campaign as it seeks to hold on in the waning days of the campaign. If the president can hold Ohio and add it to his presumed electoral vote base of 237, it would put him at 255 electoral votes, just 15 short of the magic 270 figure needed for victory. That would give the Obama camp a huge leg up on the Romney campaign, which would have to win most of the remaining so-called swing states to have any chance of getting to 270.

Dueling Views of the Race

Listening to conference calls with both campaigns is like hearing from two people who witnessed the same accident but have vastly different memories of what happened. For the Obama camp, the race is basically over since they believe the president has stable leads in key states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa. Locking up those Midwest states alone would put the president at 271 electoral votes and pretty much block any path for Mr. Romney to win.

But on the other side, the Romney camp is equally confident of victory, backed up by partisans like former George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove who predicted in the Wall Street Journal that Mr. Romney would prevail in the popular vote by a margin of 51 to 48 percent and get 279 electoral votes. The Romney view is they will carry key states like Florida, Colorado, and even Ohio, and are in a good position to pick off some of the other swing states like Virginia, Iowa and New Hampshire.

While the Obama camp is bragging about early Democratic turnout in places like Ohio and Iowa, the Romney campaign says that it won’t be enough to counter an expected Romney surge on Election Day. Obama supporters insist they are doing a better job of identifying voters and getting them out to vote, while Romney officials boast that intensity and momentum are on their side.

Obviously the truth lies somewhere in the middle on some of these claims, which just adds to the notion that Tuesday could bring a very close election that might not be decided until well into the next day.

Sandy’s Impact

Democrats seemed quite satisfied to have the president focus on disaster relief for much of the week, given the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, especially in New Jersey and New York. And Wednesday’s extensive coverage of the president touring some of the affected areas with New Jersey’s firebrand Republican governor, Chris Christie, was probably a net plus for the Obama campaign.

In the closing days of the campaign, Mr. Romney has often said he would be better positioned as president to reach out and cooperate with Democrats, something he likes to point to from his days as governor of heavily-Democratic Massachusetts. But the images of President Obama and Governor Christie walking side by side and comforting residents devastated in the aftermath of the storm could be taken by some voters as actual proof of the president willing to work with the opposition. And we’re not talking about just any member of the Republican opposition.

Don’t forget, Christie gave the keynote address at this year’s Republican National Convention, and for much of the year has been one of Mr. Obama’s most scathing and partisan critics, at times sounding downright dismissive of the president and his opposition. But all that was gone this week as Governor Christie heaped praised on Mr. Obama and his administration for the quick response in the wake of Sandy.

To a degree, the devastation brought on by the hurricane had the effect of freezing the presidential race in place, at least for a few days. It would seem that would help President Obama since he seems to hold a narrow lead in several key states where the election will be decided.

The storm and its aftermath may also have helped to slow down Mr. Romney’s surge over the past month, though there were already indications that the Romney poll bounce in the wake of the first presidential debate in early October was already starting to wane. I got the sense the Obama campaign was fine with having things frozen in place for a few days, denying Mr. Romney a chance to build some last minute momentum. Of course that still could happen in the final days, but the question is, will it be enough?

Crucial Questions

Those who believe Mitt Romney will win this election expect a mini-surge of undecided voters to flock into his column at the last minute, giving him not only a victory in the popular vote, but come-from-behind victories in key states like Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and most importantly Ohio. Under this scenario, the Romney burst would be a smaller version of the late surge that carried Ronald Reagan to victory over an unpopular incumbent, President Jimmy Carter, in 1980.

This narrative basically says that most of those waiting to decide until the last minute will deem Mr. Obama not worthy of a second term and will be persuaded to support Mr. Romney because he has made himself more acceptable to moderates in the final weeks of this campaign. Democrats are generally skeptical about this scenario, but I’ve talked to enough of them to know that some are privately worried this is what could happen on Tuesday.

Those who believe President Obama will prevail in the election question how the Romney campaign will suddenly find enough voters in several swing states to overcome what has been a persistent Obama lead in these states for months. Under this narrative, the president has a better ground game in place in key states like Ohio – a ground game that will push Democrats and Obama-leaning independents out to vote either on Election Day or before, making up for any advantage the Romney camp claims in terms of voter excitement on their side.

The Obama argument also insists that the president has steady leads in Ohio, Nevada, Iowa and Wisconsin that severely limit the electoral paths to 270 for the Romney campaign. Obama strategists also argue that much of the early voting trends so far point to an advantage to Democrats that Republicans won’t be able to overcome on Tuesday.

So if you believe the polls, and discount the notion of some last nationwide surge by the Romney campaign, you’ll feel pretty comfortable about President Obama’s chances. On the other hand, if you focus on the fact that the president often hovers just below 50 percent approval in most polls and is having trouble winning over a majority of independent voters, you probably subscribe to the idea of a classic insurgent victory over an incumbent deemed not worthy of a second term because of the mediocre state of the U.S. economy.

We’ll know soon enough.

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