America faces two general elections. One is occurring in seven or so swing states, where voters have experienced saturation advertising -- mostly negative -- since mid-June. The total-immersion process in these states has made this a very different campaign from that experienced by voters in the 40-odd other states who have witnessed this election from afar, largely through national news. It should be no surprise that voters in those two distinct groups should be behaving differently.
In the states that have experienced the minimalist campaign, the popular-vote numbers are even or maybe up for Republican nominee Mitt Romney by a bit. For people who live there, the campaign effectively started with the first debate. Many undecided voters were pleasantly surprised by Romney, who presented himself as moderate, reasonable, intelligent, and earnest. He also came across as more of a problem-solver than the ideological robot voters had seen earlier in the campaign through their binoculars.
But for those in the battleground states, who had seen Romney’s head bashed in last summer by the Obama campaign’s attacks on Bain Capital, plant closings, layoffs, outsourcing, and income taxes -- not to mention bank accounts in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and Switzerland -- skepticism has persisted. Much more than in the rest of the country, Romney’s scar tissue continues to get in the way of these swing-state voters fully embracing this new and improved Mitt. Sure, after the debates, particularly the first one, many undecideds moved his way. But the ranks of new Romney supporters are smaller and more hesitant in the swing states than in the other states, where viewers didn’t witness the hits on his image inflicted by President Obama’s campaign and Priorities USA, the leading Democratic super PAC.
Before the first debate, Romney was effectively dead in the water. He wasn’t that far behind in credible national polling, just 3 to 5 percentage points, but it was a tough 3 to 5 points. Those voters who were undecided were disappointed in the president and his handling of the economy; they didn’t see how or why things would be different or better in a second term. These undecideds really didn’t want to vote to reelect Obama, but -- again, this is before the first debate -- they weren’t really seriously entertaining the notion of casting a ballot for Romney. He was not an attractive alternative. Cold, stiff, and impersonal, the former Massachusetts governor had come across as “severely conservative” during the primaries and had a summer (European trip), convention (Clint Eastwood), and September (47 percent) that anyone would want to forget. The odds were that most of these undecided voters were going to end up staying home.
Romney’s performance in the debates, mainly the first one but reinforced by the next two (and certainly not reinforced by his advertising), captured the attention of these voters, who began actively paying attention and considering supporting him. Some moved his way, but the share of those who did was greater in the non-swing (read non-Bain-advertising) states than in the ones that had been flooded by those ads.
Right now, Obama is clearly ahead in 17 states plus the District of Columbia, practically assuring him a total of 201 electoral votes; the only one of those states evenly remotely disputed is Minnesota (10 electoral votes), where some GOP groups are on the air and some polls have showed a slight narrowing; but the improvement isn’t enough to move the state out of Obama’s column.
Next, add the following four states with 52 electoral votes, where most private polling gives Obama a durable lead: Michigan (16), Nevada (6), Pennsylvania (20), and Wisconsin (10). A few credible private polls show a couple of these still pretty close, but the vast majority reveal leads for Obama that look likely to hold up. Add these 52 electoral votes to the 201 that are cinched, and he has 253, just 17 short of the required 270.
Romney has 23 states on his side of the ledger, and no dispute about any of them, giving him 191 electoral votes, 79 short of 270.
Next come the seven Toss-Up states: Colorado (9), Florida (29), Iowa (6), New Hampshire (4), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18), and Virginia (13). These total 94 electoral votes. Romney needs 79 of those; Obama needs just 17.
The only one of the seven Toss-Ups that could conceivably be moved out of that column is North Carolina. Most of the private polling there demonstrates a pattern that straddles dead even; some have characterized it as Romney ahead by 2 percentage points to Obama ahead by 1 point. But let’s go ahead and give Romney the Tar Heel State’s 15 electoral votes; that brings his total to 206, still 64 short of 270. Romney would need to win 64 of the 79 remaining electoral votes to win. Is that possible? Sure. But is it likely? It looks pretty tough.
If Obama ekes out an electoral-vote win, look back to last spring and summer, to the Romney campaign’s decision not to define him in a personal and positive way and the Obama campaign’s decision to roll the dice by spending an enormous amount of money to discredit Romney in the swing states, as the factors that led to the outcome.