The debates are over, and although most of my fellow pundits were quick to tell us before they started that historically they don’t impact the eventual outcome, this time they certainly have.
This race hasn’t been the same since the first debate. Mitt Romney’s rout of a beleaguered and bored-looking Barack Obama dramatically altered the trajectory of the race from leaning strongly to the president to a toss-up/leaning Romney. The president bounced back somewhat in the second debate, and was much stronger in the final debate Monday night, but he’s still not been able to regain the momentum he lost in the first debate in Denver.
If Romney goes on to win this election that first presidential debate will go down as the biggest debate game changer in modern American political history.
So with the debates concluded, the campaign has now entered its final phase. The popular vote is trending Romney, but the Electoral College remains razor close and the president still has more routes to 270 than Romney does—although Romney’s path is much easier than it was at the beginning of October.
Heading down the stretch, the answers to these seven questions could determine the eventual outcome:
1. Will there be an October surprise? For example, the president clearly has a foreign policy edge over Romney, so could there be an unforeseen circumstance on the global stage that gives Obama one last chance to appear as a strong leader? Something like a rogue nation such as Iran doing something to insert itself into the election if it thinks it can handle an Obama second term more easily than a President Romney? Another potential October surprise could be the final two economic forecasts before the election, which will be on the rate of growth and unemployment. Will there be much more robust or negative numbers there when par for the course is expected? Or could it be something totally unforeseen, like George W. Bush’s revealed long-ago DUI on the eve of the 2000 election, which nearly cost him enough votes to give Al Gore the presidency?
2. Will the automobile industry bailout be the marriage amendment of 2012? In 2004, an instate fight for an amendment protecting marriage on the ballot in Ohio helped George W. Bush massively turn out the evangelical vote in that state, catapulting him to the win there and thus re-election. This time the Democrats are hoping an important but under-the-radar issue like the automobile industry bailout can do the same for Obama. The bailout wasn’t popular for Republicans, which is why Romney opposed it during the primaries, but it remains popular in Ohio. The Buckeye State is Obama’s firewall. With Ohio he stands a decent chance of denying Romney’s path to 270 Electoral College votes, and no Republican has ever won the White House without Ohio. On the other hand, if Romney wins Ohio it’s probably game, set, and match for the Obama Regime. This issue gives Obama his best chance of accomplishing that task, because he has no other record of economic achievement to run on.
3. Which base is more energized come Election Day? For much of this election cycle Democrats have been more energized than Republicans, who have been disappointed in the lack of leadership they’ve seen from many of the folks they just voted for in the Tea Party uprising of 2010. However, Romney’s rout in the first debate energized Republicans more than Democrats for the first time in 2012. Democrats have been trying to reignite that spark. Will Obama’s win in the final debate do it? Will something happen in the final two weeks that will do it? With so few undecided voters in this election, an energized base is even more vital. Obama is going to dominate traditional Democrat groups like blacks and Latinos, and Romney will dominate traditional Republican groups like evangelicals. Neither candidate has much cross-over appeal to the other’s base, which Obama was able to peel off some from John McCain in 2008. Without that cross-over appeal base turnout is even more important. Therefore, it won’t be the percentage each candidate gets of that group that matters as much as it will be the actual turnout of those groups.
4. What kind of coat-tails will each candidate have? For example, could a strong Romney win in Missouri ironically carry the embattled Todd Akin across the finish line there? Republican Linda McMahon has run a good campaign in Connecticut, but could she get swept up in Obama’s win in that state? Currently, Real Clear Politics is forecasting 10 U.S. Senate seats as toss-ups. Four of those are in states that Romney will likely win, two of them are in states Obama will likely win, and the rest are in true battleground states that could go either way. To get to 51 in the U.S. Senate, and thus repeal Obamacare, the Republicans need to win 8 of those 10 toss-up Senate seats. That is a tall order, and more than likely not possible without Akin’s seat in Missouri, which the party establishment still refuses to assist with.
5. No one else wants to say it, but since I’ve made a career out of saying stuff others don’t want to openly talk about I will. Between ACORN, the Secretary of State project, lack of Voter I.D. laws and lack of enforcement of voter fraud laws already on the books, and recent elections featuring districts and towns with more registered voters than the census says lives there, there is widespread anticipation from conservatives the Democrats are prepared to cheat if necessary. The progressive mantra seems to be “if you’re not cheating you’re not trying.” We know a multitude of attorneys were poised to invade Wisconsin for the Scott Walker recall, but he won “outside the margin of cheating” so it was a moot point. If we’re right to be paranoid about this, then Romney will need to win a state like Ohio by more than 2 points, or outside the margin of cheating. If it’s closer than that zany high jinks are sure to ensue.
6. Obama clearly won the third and final debate, albeit not in the same dominant fashion that Romney won the first one. The third debate also had the fewest viewers, and many polls showed folks’ minds weren’t changed by the debate either way. After the debate, I talked to Republicans I know around the country whose job it is to get Republicans elected. Two schools of thought emerged:
Optimism—The race is trending Romney’s direction, therefore he was wise to play it safe and say nothing that risked changing the subject from a referendum on Obama, which it has been since the first debate. Foreign policy debates always favor the incumbent, so all the challenger has to do is come across as a credible commander-in-chief. All the polls show that Romney did that.
Pessimism—Romney is playing prevent defense with the game still in doubt, and he may have peaked too soon in the polls. Remember in the primaries when a candidate surged as the “flavor of the month” only to be dropped by the voters later? The same thing could happen to Romney if he keeps playing it safe and let’s Obama off the hook on issues like Libya.
We won’t know which one of these schools of thought is correct until a winner is declared on November 6th.
7. Will any of the three wildcards play spoiler in the election?
Wildcard #1—Battleground states Nevada and Iowa each have strong libertarian/Ron Paul factions that aren’t enamored with Romney. Could Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson siphon enough votes from Romney to alter the outcome there?
Wildcard #2—The battleground state of Virginia features a rare third party candidate that has actually won multiple major elections there. Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode has been elected as a U.S. Congressman in Virginia as a Democrat, Republican, and an Independent. Goode received more than 157,000 votes in his last Congressional campaign in 2008. Obama won the state by 6 points four years ago, which was about 236,000 votes. Thus, you can see how much of an impact Goode can have on a razor close race there.
Wildcard #3—More than 30 states began early voting before the first presidential debate. How many of those voters were independents that couldn’t be swayed by that debate because they had already voted? We won’t know until Election Day.