The media have declared the presidential race over. That’s not surprising. What’s striking is how many Republicans agree. They think the Romney campaign is done. It’s true that recent momentum has favored the president, especially in battleground states. A five-point deficit in Ohio looks ominous for any Republican. But President Obama hasn’t won yet. In fact he could very well lose. Here’s why:
1) Obama’s numbers aren’t that great. There are a lot of ways to measure public opinion in a presidential race. Among the most useful are the tracking polls produced by Gallup and Rasmussen, since they ask the same questions every day and therefore produce a consistent measure over time. And over time, most Americans don’t support Obama. Between April 11 and September 20 of this year, Obama reached 50 percent support in the Gallup survey on a total of just six days. Given that incumbents rarely do better than their final week of polling, that’s bad news for the White House. If Obama remains under 50 percent a month from now, he’ll likely lose.
2) Turnout is tougher for Obama than for Mitt Romney. Republicans historically do best among slices of the population with the highest rates of voter participation. The Democratic coalition, which includes voters below the poverty line and people under 25, contains some of the lowest rates. Four years of Obama have done little to change that dynamic. (How many people who voted for McCain in 2008 are planning to vote for Obama this year? Is there anyone?) This means that Democrats may have trouble turning out their base, which doesn’t dislike Romney half as much as Republicans loathe Obama. Fundamentally, the energy is on the Republican side, even if Republicans don’t love their own nominee.
Romney, meanwhile, seems to be running a more competent than expected ground game. The Romney campaign says its staffers knocked on more doors in target states by the second week of September than Republicans at all levels did during the entire 2008 cycle.
3) The Hispanic vote might not turn out to be monolithic. Hardly anyone says so out loud, but Obama’s core advantage is demographic change. It’s a different country than it was 10 years ago and almost all of the changes favor Democrats, especially the increase in Hispanic voters, most of whom will go for Obama. This is a huge problem for the Republican Party moving forward, probably its central problem.
Romney has no chance of winning the majority of Hispanics, but he does need to keep the 31 percent who voted for John McCain four years ago. At this point that looks like a stretch, considering the intensity (and effectiveness) of Obama’s demagoguery on immigration. But you never know. Romney spent $1 million on Spanish-language ads just last week in Florida, Colorado and Nevada. He’s done interviews on Univision and Telemundo, spoken at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the ALMA Awards. He’s got surrogates all over Spanish radio. He’s trying, and voters like it when you try, even if they disagree with some of your positions.
4) Reality matters. The Obama campaign can air all the ads it wants, but advertising doesn’t dent facts. By every measure, the American economy is terrible. No president has ever run for re-election with an unemployment rate this high and a growth rate this low. Conservatives complain that the media downplay Obama’s bad economic numbers, and they’re right. But it may not matter. The public already knows. As one GOP consultant put it, “If you’re living outside the Green Zone, you don’t need to turn on CNN to see how the war’s going. You’re living it.”
People outside of Manhattan, Nantucket and Northwest DC see the effects of Obama’s economic policies every day, in the empty homes and storefronts they pass on their way to buy groceries and gas that cost twice what they did four years ago. It’s bad out there. Will voters want to reward Obama for this? Maybe not.
5) The consensus is often wrong, sometimes spectacularly so. How many people do you know who predicted that John Roberts would vote to uphold Obamacare? That Bush would tie Gore? That the Soviet Union would collapse or Facebook would lose 50 percent of its value in three months? Crowds are indeed wise, except when they’re moronic. Keep that in mind the next time you notice that everyone you know believes the same thing, including that Romney will lose. It could be time to bet against them.
None of this should suggest that the Romney campaign isn’t in trouble. It is, mostly because Romney himself is a weak candidate. On the other hand, Obama has been a truly bad president. And that fact may turn out to be decisive.