Since the fallout from the first debate in Denver on October 3, Romney has enjoyed a relatively durable lead over the president in the Real Clear Politics average of the national polls. While the lead is small, it has persisted over time, and, more important, history suggests that this is trouble for an incumbent. The only sitting president to mount a last-minute comeback against his challenger was Gerald Ford in 1976, and of course Ford still lost. Usually, late deciders in a presidential campaign either break for the challenger or split about evenly between the two sides.
Of course, another way to put the money quote is that, if Obama wins, he will be the first sitting president to mount a last-minute comeback against his challenger and win. That is to say, I don't put a lot of weight on forecast cues like that one. Still, a reasonable interpretation of the data is that, barring a change, Romney is likely to win the popular vote. Again from Cost:
And what of the state polls? Romney seems to have the edge in states whose electoral votes add up to 261 (with 270 needed for a majority), while Obama has the edge in states that add up to 237. Four states remain true tossups at this writing: Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin. If Romney carries the states where he has the edge—and wins either Ohio or Wisconsin—he will be elected the 45th president of the United States.
I continue to think what I have thought all along. If either candidate wins the popular vote by more than four percent, that candidate will win in the Electoral College. An electoral/popular vote split is likely only if the latter falls below that threshold. Bush 43 beat Kerry by a little over two percent and won Ohio by nearly the same margin. Ohio might conceivably have gone the other way and given us President Ketchup.
Allow me to state the obvious: Mitt Romney is running a serious risk of winning the election. To be sure, in the three debates Governor Romney succeeded in presenting himself as a viable presidential challenger. But that only matters when the incumbent is damaged. That the Obama campaign has been taking on water is indicated by the first item in Gallup's right hand column. Obama's approval rating has fallen below 50% again and is now three points below his disapproval. Rasmussen confirms Gallup on this score.
So what has damaged Barack Obama? The conservative press and blogosphere has been pushing the Benghazi story hard and many of the same are now arguing that this story is the reason for Obama's decline and Romney's ascent. Color me skeptical.
In the first place, I don't think that something as important as a presidential election should be a referendum on this issue and I don't think that it is likely to become so. If this story does have weight, it would only be because it reminds voters of why they have lost confidence in the President. In fact, Obama's approval rating has been underwater at Gallup for most of the last three years. His recent spike in approval we know to be due to a reweighting of White voters that Gallup decided on after criticism from the Obama campaign.
Jay Cost again has the more plausible explanation for Obama's weakness.
The problem for the president is Romney's strong and sustained lead among independent voters. Despite four years of boasting from the Democrats that they were in the process of transforming the electorate, the fact remains that voters unaffiliated with either party determine the outcome of national elections. And with these voters, Romney has a substantial lead. The most recent Rasmussen Reports poll shows Romney besting Obama by 13 points, 52 percent to 39 percent, among unaffiliated voters. Since 1972, the first year of exit polling, no candidate for president has won election while losing independents by such a wide margin.
What is driving this is, above all, Romney's growing advantage on who can best handle the economy. The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll gives the Republican a 9-point lead on this issue, which remains the top determinant of most vote choices. The recent Associated Press-GfK poll found Romney with a 6-point lead on the economy among likely voters, as well as an 8-point lead on who can better handle the deficit.
The rise of the Tea Party movement and the Republican surge in the last election were largely responses to the explosion of federal deficits in particular and the dismal economy in general. The economy and the deficits are Obama's albatrosses and those are two weighty avian corpses.
What we don't know is whether there has been a shift in support for Democratic presidential candidates in general among the key states sufficient to sustain Mr. Obama. I would not rule that out, as it would explain Obama's lead in Ohio. It doesn't matter, after all, how the independents break in California. Cost thinks that independents will decide this election as they have previous ones. If he is correct, then Romney will likely suffer the cruel fate of victory in a little over a week.
ps. Josh Jordan at The Corner has an interesting analysis of Gallup's month-long demographic poll of likely voters. This poll showed an advantage for Democrats in 2008 that was slightly larger than the actual results: 10% vs. the actual 7%. October's poll this year showed a Republican advantage of 1%. It also shows independents breaking Republican by three percent and they seem to be breaking for Romney by a much larger margin. Plugging those numbers in, Jordan estimates a Romney popular vote victory of 4%. Oddly enough, that is what Gallup and Rasmussen are finding.
President Obama has a problem with independents. And it’s not a small problem.
In the last three releases of the tracking poll conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News, Obama has trailed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney among independent voters by between 16 and 20 percentage points.
That’s a striking reversal from 2008, when Obama won independent voters, who made up 29 percent of the electorate, by eight points over Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
And if Romney’s large margin among independents holds, it will be a break not just from 2008 but also from 2000 and 2004. In 2000, Texas Gov. George W. Bush won independents by 47 percent to 45 percent over Vice President Al Gore. Four years later, Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts essentially split unaffiliated voters, according to exit polls — 48 percent for Bush to 49 percent for Kerry. (Independents made up 27 percent of the vote in 2000 and 26 percent in 2004.)