These early summer weeks have been busy with speculation that the Obama campaign must be close to panic.
After a bitter Republican primary, challenger Mitt Romney has leaped to parity in national polls — effectively tying the president.
With oodles of zillionaire cash following to pro-GOP Superpacs, and Barack Obama battered by the soft national economy, surely it’s time to pull the rip cord, right?
But in fact, Mitt Romney faces an equally long, risky journey though the summer. In fact, his path is far more rocky than that of the president.
Because of the vagaries of the electoral college,Romney will be forced to compete in far more states than Obama, often on terrain that’s been friendly to Democrats, and where the president’s team has a powerful ground game.
As of this week, Obama leads by 5 points or more in states that give him 247 electoral college votes. In other words, he has 90% of the votes he needs for victory.
He also leads by 3-5 points in two states — Wisconsin and Virginia — that give him the extra margin he needs to win. Finally, Obama is tied (within the margin of error) with Romney in three additional states: Colorado, Florida and Iowa.
(The latest poll in Colorado shows Obama up 7 points.)
By contrast, Romney is leading by 5 points or more in states that give him just 191 electoral college votes. He still needs to find nearly 80 electoral college votes to claim the White House.
Significantly, he is not currently leading in any of those states by more than the margin of error.
To get a sense for how dramatic this is, Romney has been campaigning in New Hampshire, despite the fact that the latest poll there shows him down by 12 points.
He’s also been stumping in Pennsylvania, where the last two polls have Obama up by 6 and 12 points.
The optics of that are telling. For Obama to be equally “desperate,” he would have to be campaigning and spending campaign cash in Hail Mary states like Montana and South Carolina.
The strategic contrast here is equally stark. Obama can still eke out a win with the sort of trench-warfare, strategic targeting of states that won him the Democratic primary in 2008.
Pick up a Florida or an Ohio, lock down a state like Colorado, and it’s probably game, set and match, even if Romney picks up steam in a lot of other places.
Romney, meanwhile, needs to win big nationally.
He needs the country as a whole to decide in a sweeping way that Obama doesn’t deserve a second term, the way that the country broke against Jimmy Carter in 1980.
His message will have to resonate from Colorado to North Carolina to Pennsylvania.
But Romney is no Ronald Reagan and in our polarized, geographically divided nation, this kind of wholesale zeitgeist change is really tough to pull off.
It’s also significant that Romney needs to lock down come-from-behind wins in some of the American states with the most rapid growth in Hispanic population, making the feat even more complicated.
That’s not to say that Romney doesn’t have some powerful momentum. And the fact that he will likely have at least a small — and maybe a big — money advantage down the stretch will be significant.
It’s also true that in many states, independents and late undecided voters will probably break against the Democrats, as they usually do against the incumbent in the White House.
Especially if the economy softens further, this will be a nail-biter.
But even with those wrinkles, it’s clear that Mitt Romney can’t afford to fall into a summer-long deadlock.
His bus tour has to do more than remind people that we’ve had three rocky years under Obama. He also has to convince people that there is an attractive, hopeful alternative.
So far, the polls suggest that hasn’t happened.