The State of the Race with Three Months to Go

With fewer than 100 days until the election, and given the state of the economy, President Obama should be glad he’s not doing worse in the polls.

And given his performance on the campaign trail, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney should be happy he’s so close.

As economist Gary Shilling pointed out to me, no sitting president has gotten re-elected with this kind of economy—8.2% official unemployment and a lot more unemployed or underemployed, with tepid 1.5% GDP growth.

But the former Massachusetts governor has struggled over the past month with questions about his tenure at Bain Capital, his tax returns, his lack of foreign policy acumen, and his awkward, offputting personality.

He won’t talk about his Mormon faith, his years at Bain, his record as governor of Massachusetts or even his successful  turnaround of the Salt Lake City winter Olympics—all of which, presented the right way, could present a much more compelling picture to voters.

He also won’t lay out exactly what he’d do as president in certain key areas.

So right now Romney’s a mystery man, and he’s let the Obama campaign fill in the blanks, which it has, gleefully, with a ton of negative ads.

Romney’s counting on a weak economy and hatred for the president among the Republican base to sweep him into the White House. His pitch is “the economy stinks, and I’m not him.”

President Obama campaigns in Ohio in July. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Christopher Dilts for Obama for America.

The president enjoys much higher favorability ratings than his challenger. But people are very disappointed in him, especially given  the lofty dreams he encouraged in 2008. His overall performance has been shaky, and of course he hasn’t really fixed the economy—if anybody could.

His negative ads might hurt his favorable ratings, and his campaign is desperately worried about money—as Romney raised tens of millions of dollars from billionaires and corporate America. Romney’s counting on all that cash to make a difference, as it did for him in the primaries, when he outspent his opponents into oblivion.

The president has a slight lead in the Real Clear Politics average of political polls, 47%-45%. But what really matters in the electoral map, and there the incumbent has an easier path.

RCP gives President Obama a lead of 247 to 191 (including states that are solid, likely and leaning to each candidate). There are 100 toss-up electoral votes in eight swing states—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia.

Electoral Map August 2012. Source: Real Clear Politics

Recent tracking polls give the president a five- to six-point lead in Ohio, and a similar lead in Florida (which I don’t believe).

But I do think the president will win Ohio, because of his crucial backing of the auto bailout, which Romney famously opposed.

With those 18 votes, the president would have 265 electoral votes, according to RCP’s count. So, winning Nevada or Colorado would put him over the top.

Romney, on the other hand, would have to win Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio, plus one small toss-up state—or poach one in the Obama camp—to get to the magic 270. It’s a much harder road, which is why Intrade still gives the president a 57.8% chance of getting re-elected.

Gov. Romney needs to pick a good vice-presidential candidate and use the RNC as a platform to re-introduce himself to voters. And he needs to spend like crazy in those big swing states.

The president needs to speak more about what he would do in a second term, and spend money to get his voters to the polls. And hope Europe doesn’t implode and Israel doesn’t attack Iran in the next three months.

That’s why despite all the tracking polls, electoral maps, and odds makers, this race is in many ways just beginning.

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