Political Animal


October 22, 2012 11:58 AM Three Big Strategic Question Going Into Final Stretch

By Ed Kilgore

So fifteen days out, there seem to be three big strategic questions about the presidential contest that are still very much up in the air, aside from the impact of tonight’s debate and all other isolated or “external” events (i.e., real news):

1) Is Romney’s recent “surge” in the polls a product of swing-voter persuasion or simply the re-emergence of an “enthusiasm gap” between Ds and Rs? Some of the recent surveys suggesting major Romney gains among women support the former proposition—presumably because of Moderate Mitt’s ability to win over some wavering “economic referendum” voters—though Nate Silver is arguing that the preponderance of evidence is that the gender gap is larger than it’s been since at least 2000. The sizable gaps between RV and LV findings quite a few polls, however—about double their normal size, according to TNR’s Nate Cohn—support the “enthusiasm gap” explanation, though then you have to deal with the secondary question whether it’s Republican “excitement” or Democratic “discouragement” that’s the main factor.

(2) Does Obama have a “battleground state” advantage? This was a heavily argued proposition throughout the last two weeks, when Romney’s gains in national polls didn’t seem to be manifesting themselves in key states. Indeed, at this very moment the big hep topic among analysts is the possibility of Romney winning the popular vote while Obama still wins the EVs and the presidency. There’s even a theory behind it: battleground states have now been so saturated by political communications that there are virtually no undecided voters left, making them impermeable to the debates and other supposed game-changing events. But while this scenario remains entirely possible (everything’s possible in a close election), battleground state polls are now showing some pretty significant Romney gains, to the point where many observers are now confidently placing not only NC but VA and FL into his column. If, as many still assume, Obama has an advantage beyond what the national polls suggest in OH, IA, CO, and NV, it may be because of factors peculiar to these states, not because of some uniformly separate landscape for battleground states.

(3) Who’s Got the Better Final Push? The answer to this question, of course, depends in part on how you answer the first two. If voter persuasion is actually more important at this stage than voter mobilization, then Romney’s relative strength in paid media could matter as much as or more than Obama’s presumed strength in GOTV resources. But the most intriguing question is the size of Obama’s GOTV advantage. No one doubts it exists, but is it anything like that of 2008, or is it more like 2004, when it proved to be underwhelming in the end? And while no one doubts the GOP is doing better in voter ID and mobilization than it did in 2008, how much better is that? If you talk to knowledgeable partisans in, say, Iowa, you hear wildly differing conclusions on this crucial point. And the evidence so far from early voting is mixed.

There are additional sub-questions that are highly relevant, including the connection between persuasion and mobilization strategies (i.e., can negative messages from either campaign pull swing voters across the line while increasing base voter enthusiasm?), and all sorts of micro-controversies with potentially “macro” effects, such as Election confusion-and-intimidation tactics by the GOP. But you can read about the “state of the race” for many, many hours, and it generally boils down to some combination of the big three questions above.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on October 22, 2012 12:19 PM:

    Let's face some facts about many of our fellow Americans.

    Enough of them saw that Obama was the only hope in 2008.

    But since then, manyy of them have been looking around for "The Next Great White Hope," who would be competent enough to have that Nigrah leave their WHITE House.
    Some "NOT W" that they could vote for, and not feel like the country would spiral back out of control.

    If Obama was white, got the economy out of the sh*tter, got national health care passed, got out or Iraq, and killed Osama bin Laden, he might be running virtually uncontested, with some token Republican chosen to be a sacrificial lamb to run against him.

    But Obama ISN'T white.
    And so, here we are.
    It really IS that simple!

  • Ronald on October 22, 2012 12:30 PM:

    1) Mr. Romney's 'surge' is as much a product of guesswork by the pollsters in regards to 'RV' vs. 'LV'. The gigantic shift in the Gallup poll, for example, reflects this. The problem is that gauging 'LV' is far more of a 'dark art' as to be pretty much guessing.
    2) There's always battleground states. It seems that this year they have been trending like the rest of the country: close but a distinct advantage for Mr. Obama
    3) GOTV is the only thing that counts on election day. People are so tired and 'full' from the endless ads that it is another 'bucketful for the ocean'. And Mr. Obama and the Democrats have a much greater GOTV advantage than do Mr. Romney and the Republicans.

  • stormskies on October 22, 2012 12:31 PM:

    It is also as simple as the fact that the population of people in our country is in fact one of most stupid on the face of this Earth.

  • T2 on October 22, 2012 12:33 PM:

    65% of white males are polling for Romney. I don't believe 65% of white males are Republican. This means that some % of white males are voting against Obama for other reasons than politics. It also means that some % of that bunch did vote for Obama in 2008. And for reasons unknown, the giant lead Obama had with women evaporated. It's hard to see women knowingly throw away, potentially, gains made over the last 40 years just to elect a handsome white guy.
    This election isn't difficult...the lines are clear and hard. The choice is black and white. If, as Gulag says, it really IS that simple, it's a sad day in the USA.

  • SecularAnimist on October 22, 2012 12:37 PM:

    You left out two important factors.

    The first is the GOP's massive voter suppression drive, using fraud, disenfranchisement, intimidation, deceit and Jim Crow laws to prevent many thousands of eligible voters from casting ballots.

    The second is the Romney family's ownership of the electronic voting machines that will be used in Ohio and other battleground states.

    The GOP is preparing to seize the presidency the same way they did in 2000: by stealing it.

  • stevio on October 22, 2012 12:45 PM:

    1/3 of the vote is bigot oriented, 1/3 clear thinkers, and it's the 1/3 that amount to a combo of low information (see first 1/3) voters masking as independents, repugs and dems who, for some reason, haven't been paying attention, and those who will stay at home ad end up telling everyone they know they voted for the winner.

    If Obama loses this election it won't be because he "lost" a debate that was so far removed from truth it was nauseating, it will be because people didn't get off their fat asses to vote for him...

  • Joe Friday on October 22, 2012 12:52 PM:

    The latest NBC/WSJ/MARIST polling STILL shows Willard with higher unfavorables than favorables.

  • bromox on October 22, 2012 1:02 PM:

    Yeah, that intimidation and cheating issue is a big one, with "True the Vote" out there (did anyone see that video, TTV and/or TP activists trained to disrupt voting by challenging likely Democrat voters?) as well as Tagg Romney becoming owner of voting machine company active in OH (Ed didn't mention, we need an article on that if not already.) We may literally have to fight to vote.

  • Kathryn on October 22, 2012 1:04 PM:

    Unfortunately, I think it is as simple as Gulag suggests. Further, Romney seeming more acceptable to some during the first debate (uninformed and easily fooled) gave that group cover to vote for Romney who they now perceive (wrongly) as a safe enough bet and a white guy to boot. This is why, Pres. Obama's best/only chance to win this election is to tie Romney to Bush foreign/economic policy, which is the truth, during tonight's debate. It will have to be done skillfully and thoroughly convincingly. So in conclusion a small percentage of white people who voted for Barack Obama will throw him over for the lying white Mormon. They and we will regret that decision and Romney will be despised in short order and will prove to be a weak and malleable failure. The wider world will regret it just as much, maybe more.

  • Steve LaBonne on October 22, 2012 1:15 PM:

    +1 to the comment about LV vs. RV. The real question at this point is whether the population that actually turns out to the polls will look more like 2008 or more like 2010. A lot of the pollsters' LV models seem to be leaning in the direction of the latter. I'd bet on something closer to the former. I think Obama will win more comfortably than the polls are suggesting.

  • John on October 22, 2012 1:20 PM:

    The feeling in the air at least here in Massachusetts, is that it appears that the President is going to come up short on November 6, 2012. I, myself, attribute this feeling largely to the President's abysmal performance in the first Presidential debate and believe that will prove to be the turning point in 2012 election. Also, it looks and feels like Elizabeth Warren has a real chance of unseating Scott Brown.

  • bigtuna on October 22, 2012 1:23 PM:

    The only website I look at is 538 blog at the NY times. This is one of the few places that treats the presidential election for what it is - a state by state slog. As of this am, he shows Obama still likely to win both Electoral College and popular vote. The latter not by much, the former by a pretty healthly probability. BUT everyone knows bad things can happen, and the 538 site is a probabilistic analysis. Interestingly he shows little change from present in terms of senate seats.

    However, I get really pissed off at the MSM for doing the national LV survey reports, and reporting it as the likley outcome. Both campaigns know what the deal is, an all the reporters surely know that it is an all or nothing game in 48 states. But, by reporting the "virtual tie" meme, it reinforces the lies of Romney, thereby making him look more electable, moving the last few stupid voters, etc.

    After all is done, we will see how the GOTV efforts NOW played out. Early reports are strong showings in Dem districts in most of the early voting states.

    And regarding tonights non debate, does it matter what they say? Do most Americans who might be persuaded by tonights outcome care about the substance of our policy regarding China's use of their currency, etc et c etcc?
    ISn't mostly about theatrics at this point, unless one of them makes a Poland is a free country blunder?

  • stormskies on October 22, 2012 1:27 PM:

    Obama's abysmal performance or not in the first debate means nothing compared to the fact, on that debate, Romney lied 27 times in 38 minutes.

    And this is supposed to be responsible for the sudden surge for Romney ? Because he lied so much ....

    How stupid do you have to be to vote for that ? And to 'believe' that it is true too boot.

  • Keith M Ellis on October 22, 2012 1:34 PM:

    I have some difficulty responding to this because it's not clear what other people mean by "the polls". Some of what people write above is too strongly influenced by specific polls or the media narrative about the polls.

    But the only source I trust right now is Nate Silver. His extremely thorough and rigorous analysis of the polling has shown that Obama had a peak recent national lead of about 4 points which has subsequently fallen to 2; that concomitant with this, he had much larger leads in these battleground states overall than he does now but that in many of them he's still doing slightly better than he is nationally. Not all of them, particularly Florida and North Carolina, and maybe Virginia. But he still comfortably leads in Ohio. And, let's be clear on the bottom line here that the particular composition of states matters a great deal where it counts, in the Electoral College, and Obama's 1-2 point lead in the national polls represents a somewhat larger EC advantage, because of the composition of the states where he will undoubtedly win.

    All that said, then, I will answer these three questions, and given what Nate has written.

    On the first point, the Romney "surge", I think that first and foremost it's a reversion to the mean from what is better understood as a temporary Obama surge in September. I do think that this represents some movement among the swing voters -- that, in September, they perceived Romney as maximally negatively and Obama maximally positive, relatively speaking. The Romney improvement began prior to the first debate, which solidifies the "reverting to the mean" hypothesis; but I think it was also cemented by the first debate in that these lower-information swing voters watched him in the debate and found him not as frightening as they feared.

    I don't think this is represents a voter enthusiasm gap, as I still believe that enthusiasm will end up being relatively low for the GOP and not nearly as low as we fear for the Dems. It's probably true that some individual polling is skewed by LV models, but not all of them in aggregate.

    On the second point, whether Obama has a battleground state advantage, I think that Ed's suggestion is correct -- that it's merely particular to certain states, not due to some general trait shared by them all. I think that Obama exceeds the national numbers in the battleground states which he does for reasons that are various and in many cases particular to the demographics of that state and local economic conditions. But there may be some small effect related to the difference between the median and the mean -- these battleground states represent something closer to the median, by definition, not the mean. Mostly, though, I think it's specific to each state.

    On the third question, GOTV, I've already partly answered that. Clearly, Obama has a better GOTV operation and I really wouldn't be surprised if this results in some exceeding of expectations. This might be partly offset, though, by the voter suppression efforts of the GOP. But on general enthusiasm, I don't think that we're going to see any big surprises that change how we understand this election. Obama will most likely win this election by an accumulation of small advantages. A small advantage nationally, a small advantage in opposing a relatively poor candidate during an economically negative period, a small advantage in some important swing states, a small advantage in that the GOP will lack some of the enthusiasm they've had in the past in contrast to his advantage in GOTV organization, a small advantage in Romney's not just a poor candidate essentially, but a poor campaigner.

  • stormskies on October 22, 2012 1:43 PM:

    When one considers that actual policies of Romney, what he intends to do, including criminalizing abortion, how is it that any 'intelligent' human could vote for him at all ?

    Given that about half of the voting age population will in fact vote for those policies even if those policies hurt even more their pathetic lives, what does this mean about the 'intelligence' of those voters ?

  • Nick on October 22, 2012 1:50 PM:

    Keith, I would love to agree on point 3, but I think every ignorant racist goober religioso in the U.S. -- and that covers about half the country -- will crawl over flaming broken glass to vote against the Socialist Kenyan Usurper.

    And that means big trouble, obviously.

  • Stephen on October 22, 2012 1:54 PM:

    Given that about half of the voting age population will in fact vote for those policies even if those policies hurt even more their pathetic lives, what does this mean about the 'intelligence' of those voters ?

    There are only two types of voters in this election: those
    who want Obama to win and those who want Obama to lose.

    What Mitt stands for has very little to do with it.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 22, 2012 1:57 PM:

    Funny you mention that Nick...

    You know, around this time in 2008 I do recall that the GOP, with Lady Ignoramus at the helm of their media blitz, had the Repug base in a frenzy. Remember the lady in VA who McCain had to snatch the mic from? How about Joe the Plumber? Those folks were happy to show their asses. Compared to then--even with the krazy formally indoctrinated into the GOP platform--the GOP base doesn't seem as frothing-at-the-mouth rabid to no-vote Obama.

    It could be just my faulty impressions, but the ass-hatery seems to be coming primarily from the GOP wannabe punditry class. Maybe the GOP base voters are all getting better at hiding their hatred (though I find it unlikely).

    But I'm having a hard time buying into this meme that the GOP "likely" voters are super eager to vote for Romney (or against Obama) when they don't have anything near to the spitfire they had in Sarah Palin... How many pitbulls-in-lipstick hockey moms and Jo the Plumbers (minus Kid Rock) do you see who are willing to make an ass of themselves for Romney/Ryan? All the super-crazy wingnut candidates who inspired the far right were voted off the island during the primaries. Maybe I'm missing something...

  • stormskies on October 22, 2012 2:00 PM:

    True enough but the fact is Obama, as a black man, won his election to be president. And that happened with our existing population of people. So if it were as simple as black and white he would never have won in the first place.

    So what is the difference now ? If there are more now that want Obama to loose even if the policies of Romney will make their lives worse, paying $4,000 more from their own pockets directly into the pockets of pigs like Romney for example, this what does that really say about their 'intelligence" ?

    Especially sense Obama has tried to make their pathetic lives better because of the very policies of Romney in the form of Bush that made them worse in the first place....

  • SecularAnimist on October 22, 2012 2:13 PM:

    stormskies wrote: "Obama's abysmal performance or not in the first debate means nothing compared to the fact, on that debate, Romney lied 27 times in 38 minutes."

    The fact that Romney is the biggest liar in the history of American politics (with the possible exception of Paul Ryan) means nothing to most voters, because they don't know that Romney is lying, because the mass media won't tell them, because virtually all of the mass media in the USA is owned by a half-dozen giant corporations who want Romney to win.

    The whole purpose of the mass media's frenzied, lock-step focus on Obama's "abysmal performance" is precisely to help Romney get away with lying.

    It's amazing to me that 12 years after the Gore/Bush debates, when the media did THE SAME EXACT THING, that people don't seem to understand this.

  • stormskies on October 22, 2012 2:20 PM:

    They don't understand this because they are simply fucking stupid. If these Americans were not stupid bordering on cretinism they would of course realized the obvious.

    But the sad fact is they can't even realize the obvious. That's how stupid they are.

  • Keith M Ellis on October 22, 2012 2:43 PM:

    Nick, Sgt. Gym Bunny, and stormskies: I think that the true hard right core hates Obama just as much as they did in 2008. But those people were reliable voters then and they're reliable voters now. That's not where the GOTV enthusiasm really will matter.

    It matters for those who might or might not be relatively strongly motivated under the right conditions. The people who really hate Obama were going to no matter what, and will continue to do so. And you can say the same about the people who really love Obama.

    The people who really matter in this context are the people who can become excited, motivated, positively or negatively, on a contingent basis.

    So that's the people who will change how they vote, or whether they vote, on the basis of economic conditions. Or single issues.

    I think there's a problem for Obama in that on his side of the equation, with regard to positive voters, he's not in a good place. The economy and some people's unrealistic expectations mean that the contingent positive enthusiasm for him is considerably less than it was in 2008. Which is why this is a close election.

    And I think that the GOP would almost certainly win this election had they nominated a better candidate than Romney. Because his problem is that he doesn't have anyone other than Mormons who are positive, contingent voters. But worse than that, he's lacking a significant number of voters who would have been enthusiastic, positive voters for most other viable GOP nominees. Some of these otherwise positive enthusiastic voters don't trust Romney, suspecting he's not really a conservative. They're not going to rouse themselves to vote for him the way they did even for McCain in 2008.

    But the biggest problem for Romney are conservative evangelicals. They're the biggest problem because they're extremely effective at GOTV efforts, they have laser-like focus on their core issues, and they otherwise constitutionally distrust all Democrats -- yet, bottom line, Romney not only isn't one of them, he's not even a Christian by their standards.

    My sister and her husband are full-time in a huge evangelical ministry. She cheerfully describes herself as a single-issue pro-life voter. And, granted, many of her friends and acquaintances have so vilified Obama that they are highly motivated to vote against him. But none of them are enthusiastically voting for Romney. Furthermore, she claims she, in fact, isn't planning on voting for Romney, for many reasons, but chiefly that he's a cultist. Basically, this extremely enthusiastic, reliable, core GOP segment will vote for Romney, to the degree to which they actually do, while holding their noses. And beyond them, I just don't see any positive enthusiasm anywhere on the right for Romney, just as Sgt. Gym Bunny mentions.

    Voting turnout in the US is quite low. People plan to vote, and then often don't for various reason. Their positive enthusiasm for a candidate plays a large role in their motivation to actually follow through on their plan; their negative enthusiasm isn't as reliably motivating. The advantage the GOP has by the intensity of the hatred of Obama is almost entirely canceled out by the lack of positive enthusiasm for Romney, and, in some groups, actual antipathy. But then, the enthusiasm for Obama has fallen among those who were very enthusiastic in 2008.

    I still believe that this will be, all things considered, a low-turnout election. It won't be quite as low as it might have been simply because Obama is such a polarizing President. But, even so, this is not an election where either candidate has a strong positive support and that means it's an election which will have lower turnout than it otherwise would.

    By the way, this is all a pretty strong argument for why Gallup's LV model is very poor, as it is strongly calibrated against the 2008 election. But that election is a very, very different el

  • T2 on October 22, 2012 3:06 PM:

    @Keith..." Obama is such a polarizing President. " is he? Just what has he done that is so terrible it "polarizes" the nation? He actually seems to be a reasonable, personable, dedicated family man who is certainly not Far Left, but rather has a pretty normal view of things like most Democrats. What about him could possibly be so "polarizing" that 65% of white males intend to vote against him?
    And yes, when a guy can go on national TV debate and put forth, what, 27 easily proven lies in an hour and be declared an overwhelming winner by the Media, we have a problem.

  • Keith M Ellis on October 22, 2012 5:41 PM:

    I don't intend to imply that he ought to be polarizing, or that he is intentionally polarizing, just that he is, as a matter of practical fact and both due, in my opinion, to larger historical forces and ugly demagogic ones.