Saturday, October 20, 2012

Race for the White House

17 Days Until Election Day

The finish line continues to inch closer and Presidential politics has really begun to permeated the pop culture of America, as numerous television commercials and advertisements play on the theme of the campaign. Actors, who vaguely resemble Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, are depicted in debate settings, vigorously disagreeing before coming to a common cause over a shared love of Tostitos or things along those lines.

With all that in mind, it makes sense that despite much counter programming, the Presidential debates in this now extremely close election are attracting high viewers and much public interest. When the books of this campaign are written, the debates will probably have had more of an influence than ever before in history, as it is now taken for a fact that Mitt Romney turned around a flagging campaign, headed for defeat, with a strong performance in the first debate. The second debate, this past Wednesday in Hempstead, New York also received a large television audience, although slightly below the number of the first. Rounding out the debate season will be the sit down encounter that will occur Monday night in Boca Raton, Florida as the candidates will debate foreign policy.

Many words could be spent analyzing the past week, especially the Town Hall debate, and everything that happened, but I will try to keep this to general themes. Democrats certainly have a right to feel better about Obama's performance in this debate as compared to the first, but it appears to be the case that any rebound that did exist has not been enough to blunt the overwhelm momentum gained by Romney since the first showdown. Obama supporters were hopeful to see a quick boost in the polls (as they were after the Vice Presidential debate), but despite "flash polls" showing that a small plurality of debate watchers considered Obama the "winner", and the media certainly went along with that narrative, there has not been anything to speak of in regards to any sort of noticeable bounce.

To be sure, national and state polls continue to be very interesting and sort of all over the place. Gallup, by far the oldest and most established polling firm has produced a monster week for Mitt Romney, having him up by at least six points for the past four days, and moving beyond the 50 percent threshold. Even a perceived stronger debate by Obama this past week has done nothing to stop his slide in that poll among both registered and likely voters, and even in the incumbent's job approval number to some extent among all adults. 

Those Gallup numbers are in line with the lead that was held in that poll at this point in the campaign four years ago by Barack Obama, and if they hold, Mitt Romney would be poised for the most impressive GOP Presidential victory since 1988. Simply put, if Gallup has caught something that the other polling firms have not, it would be close to impossible now for Obama to hold onto office.

While I am increasingly optimistic about a Republican win of the White House, and think that Mitt Romney is at least slightly ahead nationally, I do think it is possible that the Gallup numbers could be a bit overstated. At the same time, I am not ruling out the possibility that all the other polls are consistently oversampling Democrats and underestimating GOP intensity this year, and Romney could very well not only be ahead, but solidly ahead.

Other polls show a closer contest though. Romney leads by a point today in Rasmussen, as he has held a small lead in that poll almost every day since the first debate. However, Rasmussen also shows a strong improvement over the past seven days for Romney in the swing states. Other national polls, tracking and otherwise, are all in the Margin of Error, showing anything from a three point Romney lead to a three point Obama lead. I will conclude this week's post by looking at some of the individual swing states.

Let's touch briefly though on the overall debate that took place on Long Island. Despite the flash polls that have been mentioned, I believe that Mitt Romney was the overall winner of the debate. That is not to say that Obama was not better than he had been in the first debate. It was a certainty he had nowhere to go but up, and while by comparison Romney was not as close to flawless as he had been (and I certainly think Romney let a lot of things go that he could have pounded his opponent on during the debate), the GOP nominee was still pretty good in the format,and delivered some serious blows to Obama, especially on one particular two minute answer, in which he prosecuted an extremely effective case against the incumbent's economic record. All things considered, Romney has had two strong debates in a row, and that cumulative effect is serving him well.

The flash polls narrowly gave a plurality to Obama as having "won" the debate, but I think that is a factor of changed expectations for both candidates are the story of the first debate and that a more feisty, aggressive Obama was able to impress some people with some Bidenesque sound and fury and that in this reality show era we live in, debate watchers might have judged the debate for him on solely that performance regard. The very same flash polls did not indicate that there would be any immediate vote switching to Obama, and perhaps most interestingly at all, the same polls which declared Obama the winner in the debate, also had the respondents saying Romney would be much stronger on the economy and several other issues. Seeing the internals of those flash polls must have been a cold dose of reality to Democrats (and their allies in the media) who were openly giddy, after the debate, thinking that Obama had easily won and would quickly surge. Another difficult thing to watch might have been the post debate focus group of undecided voters, conducted both by the conservative leaning Fox News Channel in Nevada and the very liberal MSNBC network done in Ohio. Both focus groups contained voters who seemed to be heavily leaning towards a Romney vote.

The debate itself was as contentious and confrontational as any in American history as in between answering questions from allegedly undecided Long Island area voters (which included several of my fellow Jewish-Americans who got to ask questions) the candidates at times circled each other like sharks, physically got in each other's space, and directed questions at each other, and talked over each other. It appears clear that these two men did not like each other very much, especially Obama's reactions towards the man who might soon take his job. Democrats believe that Romney came across as a jerk, while Republicans (like myself) believe that Obama was far ruder, less dignified and more arrogant. The average American probably did not like aspects of what they saw from either man in the debate, but also probably just chalked it up to the political reality we live. We can only imagine what Thomas Jefferson and John Adams might have said to each other in this kind of forum back in 1800. It might have even been far uglier. If the "likability" of both men took a hit from mushy moderate voters in this debate, that is a bigger net problem for Obama.

From the debate, we learned that Obama has pension envy of Romney, who attempted to turn around a matter of his blind trust's investments on a surprised appointment the same way he brutally shot down Newt Gingrich with the exact same technique in a Florida primary debate earlier this year. The candidates also sparred verbally, virtually in each other's faces over public drilling (and the fact check determined Romney was right) and many other topics. Since the debate, Democrats have tried to make much hay over the fact that Romney used the term "binders full of women" to discuss how he went about trying to staff his Cabinet as staff as Massachusetts Governor with qualified female candidates, who might have otherwise been overlooked for those jobs. To anyone watching the debate, Romney's answer was clear and his record on it was strong and should be indicative of something the left should applaud, but they are trying to use the "binder" reference which was clearly about resumes, into something sinister or sexist. I cannot even possibly begin to fathom why it was considered offensive, but I have to just think they are getting increasingly desperate about a campaign slipping away. To me, and I think to most Americans, a far more serious verbal misstep occurred later in the week when Obama went on Comedy Central's Daily Show and and described the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi as "not optimal." I am not as vicious of a partisan to claim that Obama has no human compassion, but he certainly can come across as a cold man at times.

Anyways, this segues into one of the more memorable moments from the debate. While all but one questin from the audience was about domestic issues, one question was asked about the tragedy in Libya and why adequate security had not been provided for the consulate. Obama sidestepped the question as to why but seemed to take responsibility for the failure (despite the public efforts of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to do so the day before.) When it was Romney's turn to answer, he noted the publicly confusing statements from the Administration and the fact that it took two weeks for the determination of it being a terrorist act to be confirmed, rather than a spontaneous demonstration in regards to an American YouTube clip. Romney stated that the day after the attack Obama had gone to Las Vegas to fundraise.

Obama angrily snapped back that he had called it an "act of terror" the day after the attack while in the Rose Garden, which took Romney by surprise as he attempted to get Obama to confirm he was claiming that for the record. Somewhere in the sequence, Obama used the term "check the transcript" and then also shamefully tried to play the "how dare anyone criticize me as Commander in Chief when I have to greet the coffins" card. Clearly, there was much disagreement between the two men as to what was said and when. Most would figure this would all be examined by the media after the debate, but instead, moderator Candy Crowley of CNN chimed in to defend Obama and claim that he had indeed called the Benghazi attacks an "act of terror" , while also pointing out that Romney was correct in saying it took two weeks before they dropped the YouTube aspect.

I believe it was completely inappropriate for Crowley or any debate moderator to inject themselves into a point of contention during the debate in such a way and that it reflects poorly upon her as a journalist. Partisans of both candidates in the audience (including Michelle Obama) broke the rules by applauding at apparent "gotcha" moments directed at both candidates by Crowley.

Democrats and many in the media believe that the Libya exchange in the debate was a terrible mistake by Romney and a strong showing of backbone by Obama. However, the facts are the facts, and on September 12 of this year, Obama did not directly say the attack in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, but only used that terms in a general sense, after making reference to the attacks of 9/11/01. Those same remarks included talk about the video and of course the Administration continued to give mixed messages for two weeks. Indeed, moments after the debate ended, Crowley went on CNN and somewhat sheepishly admitted that Romney had been "mainly in the right" in what he had said in challenging Obama's veracity, but he had simply used the "wrong word." Clearly, the Benghazi incident will be a large part of what we will hear talked about on Monday in the final debate. It is more of a question as to how many undecided voters understand or even care about the entire issue.

This weekend, the Presidential candidates are off the trail as both are both preparing for any possible foreign policy discussion that might occur in the final debate. The media will set up this debate as the "tiebreaker" in the series, although it is likely that when it is over, it will also be considered more of a "draw" and while the first debate, which was on domestic policy, will have been the most influential of the meetings. Still though, provided he does not commit a rare debate gaffe, there is a great opportunity for Romney to show his knowledge on international issues and competence as a potential Commander in Chief while sitting as an equal on stage with the person who currently has the job.

While Tuesday night's debate in Long Island was quite tense at times,the atmosphere was a bit different on Thursday evening, not far away in New York City, as both Presidential candidates, by tradition, attended the Al Smith Dinner, sponsored by the Archdiocese of New York. The man who is the first African-American nominee for President and the man who is the first Mormon nominee for President met to pay tribute to the man who was the first Roman Catholic nominee for President in formal white tie and also to make fun of themselves and each other.

There were some good lines (written by whomever) on the evening from both candidates, self-deprecating and directed at their opponent, but all in all, Romney was probably funnier and got in some really good jabs at Obama as well. The crowd seemed to be enjoying those digs a lot more than Obama might have, but it is fair to point out that it was mostly a Republican crowd of rich people in that very liberal city. Virtually nobody may base their vote on the roast like nature of the Al Smith Dinner, but anybody who might have caught Romney's remarks on television or seen clips of them online, probably came away a bit surprised that he was a comically talented as he came across. Also part of the event, is the protocol that both men also conclude y saying something nice and sincere about their opponent. Both Romney and Obama (who probably truly do despite each other personally this month) kept it sort of generic with describing each other as good family men, etc, but it was a bit of a unifying moment for all involved. As Mitt Romney said at the dinner, there is "more to life than politics", but politics is what it will all be about for the next two weeks plus. I actually think that these two men could be opponents again in four years, but with a different person in the Oval Office and a different person as the challenger.

We all still need to get through this election though. Publicly, Democrat and Republican partisans will express confidence but privately, any smart, political partisan should be scared to death about the uncertainty of this race. It all looks very close, but I maintain the momentum generated by Romney in the month of October was and still is real and when a challenger gains late momentum against an incumbent, that is bad news for the person who holds the political office, no matter what it is.

If Gallup is merely an outlier, the popular vote is very close right now and could easily go either way by a point or so. That will not ultimately matter though. It's all about the Electoral College of course. We all could basically color in 39 out of the 50 states either red or blue now and be certain of the outcome. All the other states that are up for grabs are ones that Obama won in 2008, which has to be a somewhat distressing fact for those who insist that Democrats have a structural Electoral College advantage.

Already, it now appears as if both parties are agreeing that North Carolina is not really a battleground any longer and that it will go to Governor Romney, leaving them to fight it out in other closer states. Along those lines, some polls out of the electoral rich states of Michigan and Pennsylvania show that Romney is very much in the game (and potentially even ahead in Pennsylvania according to one poll this week), but Republicans do not look like they are planning on investing too much in the way of resources into those states. That could of course change, and if we see either party's candidates or top surrogates there in the days ahead, that should be considered good news for the Romney/Ryan ticket.

Florida and Virginia were considered two of the most crucial bellwether states in the country not long ago, but over the past week, most polls there show that Romney now has at least a slight lead, perhaps more so in Florida than Virginia currently, but even the pundits are beginning to say that Romney now has the edge there.

The same may be true in New Hampshire, where the most recent polls have Romney ahead very narrowly. The same could possibly be said for Colorado now, although it looks very close there. Obama probably still has a very slight lead in Nevada and Wisconsin, although different polls are showing different margins. Most likely both states are well within the margin of error. Another key battleground in the Midwest is Iowa, which has seen polls in the past couple days showing anything from Obama ahead by eight to Romney ahead by one. The latter is probably far more realistic and the race is likely close to a tie there. Of all the states, mentioned in this paragraph, Romney needs to win just one to be on the cusp of victory.

Then, it will all come down to Ohio. In many ways, it appears inevitable that the Buckeye State will decide who the next President is. For months, Obama had held a lead in the state and was considered a firewall. There should be no doubt there that things have changed considerably in Romney's favor since that first pivotal debate and while polls this week show Obama ahead in Ohio by as many as three points, the state is very much up for grabs. The Democrat associated Public Policy Poll released numbers today that Democrats were expecting to be favorable to them after what they saw as an Obama debate win. That was not to be though, as they are now showing Obama only ahead by one point, in a state that the same survey had him up by five just a week ago. The poll this week shows that among those who say they already voted, Obama has established a very large lead in the bank, but among those who have yet to vote, Romney is solidly ahead. Early voting trends, as the practice becomes more common is definitely a wildcard. I wonder how many people who say they already voted have actually done so or even intend to vote at all.

Polls out of the 11 or so swing states will keep coming in the week ahead, but no state should be watched as closely as Ohio.