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Obama-Romney Race Could be Closest Race Since 2000

November 03, 2012

One way or the other, history will be made on November 6th, Election Day in the United States. We’ll know soon enough, but if Republican Mitt Romney is able to defeat President Barack Obama that day, he would become the fourth presidential candidate to oust an incumbent since World War II. Mr. Romney would thus follow in the footsteps of Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976, Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992.

Mr. Carter narrowly defeated President Gerald Ford, largely because Mr. Ford decided to pardon his predecessor, Richard Nixon, and absolve him from any criminal liability in the Watergate scandal. Historians also like to point out Mr. Ford was never actually elected president. He was appointed vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, and assumed the presidency after Mr. Nixon’s resignation in August of 1974.

Four years later, Mr. Carter was the victim of an political insurgency led by Ronald Reagan. Mr. Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, was also ousted after one term by Bill Clinton. In all these cases, a weak economy played a major role and presumably will again if President Obama cannot muster enough support for a second term.

On the other hand, if President Obama’s Democratic supporters come out to vote in sufficient numbers and get him a second term, he will go down in history as one of those rare presidents who was saddled with a tough economy but managed to win re-election anyway.

Poll Crazy

These days, the experts are gobbling up new public opinion surveys each day, both of voters nationally and in the key states, and trying to figure out where this presidential race is headed. What we know is this: before the debates, it was Barack Obama’s to lose. The president had a modest but steady lead and was in good shape in most of the nine so-called battleground states where the outcome remains in doubt.

But after the debates, especially the first one where Mitt Romney scored a major victory, the landscape has shifted considerably. Mr. Romney has closed the gap, and in several national polls has moved into a slight lead over Mr. Obama. Analysts note that when an incumbent president is still running neck and neck with a challenger this late in the race, and is running below 50 percent in most surveys, it’s usually seen as a danger sign for the incumbent. That is certainly the story line the Romney camp likes to promote.

On the other hand, the Obama camp remains focused on the polls in the individual battleground states where the election will be won or lost. Most of these states right now show a very close election, with very slight leads for one candidate or the other. For example, Mr. Romney seems well on his way to putting North Carolina out of reach, a state the president narrowly won four years ago. On the other hand, the Obama campaign is feeling somewhat confident about Nevada, where the polls show a steady lead of about three points or so.

All of this is important because in the final week of the campaign the focus will be on seven or eight of these so-called swing states, especially places like Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Colorado. Ohio is enormously important to both camps. If the president can maintain his slight lead in Ohio and win its 18 electoral votes, it would put him by most calculations at 255 of the 270 electoral votes he needs to win a second term. That means cobbling together some combination of Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), Nevada (six electoral votes), Iowa (six) and New Hampshire (four) to get to the magic 270 figure.

For Mr. Romney, trying to get to 270 without Ohio is much harder. Most analysts give Mr. Romney a base of 191 electoral votes. But without Ohio’s 18 votes, the Republican would have to nearly sweep the remaining battleground states, something the polls suggest right now might be difficult. So while the national polls have been trending slightly in Mr. Romney’s favor, the president appears to be holding a slight advantage in the Electoral College.

Senate Hanging in the Balance

So far, the presidential race has overshadowed the battle for control of Congress. Most of the action is in the Senate, where Democrats are scrambling to hold their current 53 to 47 majority. Heading into this election cycle the Democrats appeared to be in real jeopardy of losing their majority. They are defending 23 of the 33 seats up for election this year. Senators serve six-year terms and one third of the Senate is up for election every two years. House members, of course, serve two-year terms and elections are held every two years.

At the moment, a handful of Senate races are hanging in the balance and will determine which party controls the chamber come January. The most watched races include the Massachusetts contest between the Republican incumbent, Senator Scott Brown, and Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Warren has built a lead, but Brown remains popular with swing voters. Another race drawing national attention is in Virginia between two former governors, Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine. Allen lost this seat six years ago to Democrat Jim Webb in a campaign famous for his use of the disparaging word “macaca,” in reference to a Democratic volunteer taping one of Allen’s campaign events. Allen is on a mission to redeem himself while Kaine is pitching the idea that he will be able to work with the next president whether his name is Obama or Romney. It’s seen as a toss-up right now.

In Indiana, Republicans ousted veteran Senator Richard Lugar in their primary earlier this year in favor of Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock. But Mourdock veered into trouble recently with debate comments on abortion and rape and that could make his race against Democrat Joe Donnelly quite close. Mourdock in some ways is now being lumped in the same category as Todd Akin in Missouri, the Republican Senate candidate who talked about “legitimate rape” a few months back. Akin, by the way, is still seen as an underdog in his showdown with the incumbent Democrat, Claire, McCaskill. McCaskill had been generally seen as the most vulnerable Democratic senator.

Republicans are counting on picking up the Senate seat of retiring Democrat Ben Nelson in Nebraska and may prevail in a close race in North Dakota for the seat of retiring Democrat Kent Conrad. But the Republicans may fall short of pickups in Ohio and Connecticut and if they lose seats in Maine and Massachusetts, it would probably make it impossible for them to pick up enough seats to reclaim a majority in the Senate.

As for the House of Representatives, Democrats would seem to have a tall order in trying to gain the 25 seats they would need to reclaim the majority they lost in 2010. In fact, most analysts predict modest gains of up to 10 seats or so, which would leave the House chamber under Republican control. It will be interesting, though, to see how many Tea Party favorites, if any, are defeated in House races this year after all the focus on Congress in gridlock for the past two years.

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