With the exception of the President’s stumble in the first debate, all four candidates performed at the expected high level. We can hope that some eager political scientist will be conducting exit polls to determine whether independent voters identify the debates as a major decision factor.
There is no doubt that the Electoral College race has narrowed. In September, President Obama led Governor Romney by 247 votes to 191 votes, with 100 toss up votes. As of today, that gap had been overreached, with Governor Romney leading by 206 to 201, and 131 toss up votes. As the hypothetical vote count demonstrates, this is more a question of President Obama losing potential swing state votes rather than Governor Romney gaining them, but it is obviously a concern to the incumbent nonetheless.
The swing state votes in September consisted of 9 states:
- Florida (29)
- Ohio (18)
- North Carolina (15)
- Virginia (13)
- Colorado (9)
- Iowa (6)
- Nevada (6)
- New Hampshire (4)
This month, three states have been added to the “toss-up” column: Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10). North Carolina has moved into the “Leans Romney” column with 15 Electoral College votes. The Tar Heel state was never considered to be a serious play for President Obama, despite having won it in 2008. A conservative population with a large banking community (Bank of America is headquartered in Charlotte) is a ripe target for the Romney campaign.
The other three toss-up states that favor Mr. Romney (Florida, New Hampshire, Colorado) are well within the statistical margin of error, with some polls showing Obama in the lead. Florida in particular could swing towards Obama thanks to a large population of Hispanics and retired pensioners scared by Republican stances on immigration and Medicare reform. New Hampshire also looks to be in a statistical tie.
Much more important to the Obama campaign are the industrial Northwest states of Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. Without those 44 electoral votes, Mr. Romney’s path to the White House becomes very difficult to see. Pennsylvania’s 20 votes are also crucial, mainly because they had long been regarded as likely Obama. The President retains a lead in all four of these states, though the gap has narrowed somewhat in all of them. Despite the fact that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are native sons of Michigan and Wisconsin respectively, the President retains a highly favorable voter impression based on his perceived support for US manufacturing and for his actions to save GM and Chrysler.
If we consider today’s polls to be 100% accurate, then the “no toss-up” Electoral College totals would favor President Obama by 277 to 248, which would put the election out of reach for Mr. Romney even should he win Virginia’s 13 votes.
There are also indications that the Obama campaign has regained some of the momentum lost in early October after a dismal debate. Both the President and Vice President received high marks for their performance in the following debates, making the first one look more and more like an aberration. More importantly, news on the economy has improved markedly in the past few weeks.
The unemployment rate dipped below 8% for the first time since the President assumed office, reaching an average 7.8% for the nation. Gas prices at the pump have been falling as well, from a national average of $3.71/gallon to $3.58/gallon. in Additionally, consumer spending picked up in September, retailers are predicting a much better Christmas season than last year, consumer and business confidence increased as well, and purchases of consumer durables were up – all the macro-economic numbers were aligned in a positive direction.
On the foreign policy front, the Iranians leaked with impeccable timing (two days before the foreign policy debate) that they were prepared to enter into bilateral discussions with the United States to resolve the stalled negotiations over their nuclear enrichment program. Mr. Romney and Co. immediately disparaged this announcement as a ploy to gain time, and perhaps it is; but it indisputably undermines Mr. Romney’s key attack on the alleged weakness of the President in the Middle East.
The fact that sanctions are having a noticeable economic effect on Iran, and that this has led to a possible break-through leaves Mr. Romney with two unpalatable options: he can either endorse the sanctions and vindicate the President’s foreign policy towards the Iranians, or he can reject it and sound like a warmonger to an American people fatigued after a decade of war. The middle ground of calling for an ambiguous “tougher stance” becomes precarious and risks Americans concluding that Mr. Romney in fact has no plans for Iran either way.
None of this is convincing enough to make a major impact on voters, but it may be enough to undermine Mr. Romney’s key messages in that small percentage of undecided voters that will decide the election. Barring a major catastrophe in the next two weeks, the President continues to enjoy favorable odds to win reelection this November.
The Presidential election is only one part of the drama this fall, though it receives the greatest number of headlines. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs, as are a third of the seats in the Senate. Both parties are looking for majorities in the houses of Congress, but in the Senate, 60 votes are required to force cloture on a filibuster. Neither party seems to be in a position to reach that objective.
The House of Representatives starts with a large Republican majority from the historic sweep into power during the 2010 mid-terms. The GOP won 64 seats in that election for a majority of 242 to 191 (and 2 independents). The current standing in the election promises only modest gains, if any at all, for the Democrats. Even if all 26 toss-up seats went to the Democrats, Republicans would maintain an 8 seat majority in the House, and the split is unlikely to be so generous. The President’s coattails have been non-existent…but Mr. Romney hasn’t been a powerful force for GOP candidates to the House either.
In the Senate, the Democratic majority was narrowed but preserved after 2010. From 57 Democratic Senators and two independents, the margin was reduced to just 51+2. During this election, the Democrats seem likely to retain a slight majority and perhaps even pick up a seat or two. This additional margin is useful, but not decisive for voting purposes.
The likely outcomes of the Congressional races points to a divided legislature, which will force whoever wins the Presidential election to seek some measure of bipartisanship. The likely narrow margin of victory in the popular election will also reduce the ability of the next President to claim a mandate. To a certain extent, it is a formula for more Capitol Hill gridlock. However, there are some circumstances which might facilitate a measure of bipartisanship.
Should President Obama be re-elected, Republicans will lose one of their principal motives for legislative obstructionism, the desire to ensure a one-term presidency for Obama. An electoral rebuff might make some GOP leaders reconsider the politics of intransigence and opt for the more collaborative approach that centrist and independent voters claim they want in their candidates. Furthermore, the next four years should see a continuation of the economic recovery – not necessarily acceleration, but an improvement nonetheless. Republicans will undoubtedly want to be able to take credit for some of this and the best way to do it is by cooperating to some degree with the Administration.
A second-term President is traditionally more focused on his legacy than on mere partisanship. It can be hoped and expected that Mr. Obama will return to some of the “big reforms” that were so prominent in his 2008 campaign, especially immigration and fiscal policy, where there is a certain degree of agreement between the parties, at least on the urgency of these issues. Without needing to worry about re-election, and without needing to defeat him, President Obama and House Republicans might hammer out a “grand compact” on tax and entitlement reforms that brings down the deficit in the same manner that President Clinton and the Gingrich House arrived at a fiscal deal in the 1990’s.
On the other hand, a Romney victory, however narrow, would be a clear rebuke to Democrats. A Republican Administration cooperating with a Republican House on key legislation would present Senate Democrats with a very difficult dilemma: to obstruct or not to obstruct. I would argue that Democrats have no history of inveteracy and that Mr. Romney would be able to pass key legislation more often than not. Perhaps not sweeping legislation: Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid would be safe for two more years; but a tax package that favored Mr. Romney’s wealthy patrons without being too obscene would certainly make it through the Senate. Whether a Romney Administration would make good use of this opportunity to seek a moderate legislative agenda, rather than catering the extremists in his party and in the House, is an open question.
Personally, I hope this remains a hypothetical exercise.
Sources and Notes:
 All polling data from Real Clear Politics
 The initial estimate by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, not seasonally adjusted. These are normally revised within a week.
 Schoen, John W., “Falling Pump Prices Could Give Obama A Lift,” NBCNews, 23 October 2012
 Associated Press, “Retail Spending Showed Broad September Gains,” New York Times, 16 October 2012
 Fox, Emily Jane, “Consumer confidence rises, boosted by jobs optimism,” CNN Money, 25 September 2012
 Cooper, Helene and Landler, Mark, “U.S. Officials Say Iran Has Agreed to Nuclear Talks,” New York Times, 20 October 2012
 Considering the number of millionaires in the Senate, the measure could hardly fail to pass.