The 2012 presidential election has been — for most of its long, dreary slog — a bit of an anomaly.
An African American president with mediocre-to-low approval ratings, facing high unemployment, and growing anxiety among white, middle class voters who still make up the largest block of voters should have been deeply vulnerable from the start.
It didn’t help that Barack Obama’s two signature accomplishments, Obamacare and a fiercely waged campaign against Islamic terrorists, just didn’t play well with important constituencies.
Conservatives and many independents loathed his healthcare solution.
Liberals are deeply troubled by his predator drone strikes, by the continued operation of the terror camp at Guantanamo Bay, and even by some of the rah-rah that followed the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Despite some systemic advantages in the electoral college, the likelihood of Barack Obama being awarded a second term, should have been 50-50 at best. Thus the frustration through much of the campaign among conservatives, who felt that Mitt Romney was squandering a historic opportunity.
Yet until the very final stage of the race, Obama seemed untouchable. Why?
Obama was helped by the fact that he didn’t face a primary challenger — no Ted Kennedy or Bill Bradley to muddle his campaign focus.
But they key factor was Republicans more or less disqualifying themselves, turning the primary season into a circus, and then handing their banner to Romney, a persistently lackluster candidate — even by conservative measure — who seemed unwilling to lay out any kind of specific plan for his presidency.
Moments like the “47%” speech apparently locked in a theme that Team Obama had carefully worked to establish: that Romney simply wasn’t a viable choice.
That all changed with the first presidential debate. Having gone back and looked at the tape, I actually don’t think you can argue that Obama destroyed himself in the way that many pundits (including, in my own small way, myself) have suggested.
Yes, he was lackluster, passive, dull and seemed unwilling to offer even a crumb of excitement to voters. But he committed no gaffes and at several points during the exchange he did, in fact, bite back.
What no one could have predicted, however, was that this one exchange would essentially open the floodgates to the logical, proper paradigm for the entire campaign, turning it back into the toss-up it always should have been.
Romney looked plausible. He looked credible. He looked ostensibly presidential.
And that’s all frustrated voters needed. An option. A choice. Frankly, Obama is dead lucky that Romney didn’t offer up that kind of break-through performance much earlier, perhaps at the Republican National Convention.
So now we’re back where this election probably always should have been, based on the fundamentals. An impatient, anxious electorate. An angry Republican base that finally feels like it has somewhere to turn. A disappointed but still fiercely loyal Democratic base. A near-tie in the demographics.
Turn-out is key
Barack Obama still holds a tiny advantage in the Electoral College, with Real Clear Politics and Politico concluding that the president currently enjoys enough support in battleground states to eke out a 281-electoral college vote win. (That’s without Colorado or Virginia, which are currently in a dead tie according to polling surveys.)
Romney, meanwhile, has held onto his overall polling advantage, a narrow lead in the popular vote (according to surveys) of roughly 1%. (Gallup puts his lead significantly higher, around 5%.)
Those surveys are of likely voters, so in theory the state-of-play already factors in the reality that Republicans are — historically — more disciplined and diligent voters than Democrats.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that what it all boils down to in the end is voting. After all the campaign ads and the Super PACs and the fact checking and the debates and the polls, the side that goes to the polls with the most passion and zeal will almost certainly choose our next president.
In some states, particularly low-population battlegrounds like Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, a handful of votes could make all the difference.
What to watch for on election night
Here’s my road map for election night. Big early surprises could be Obama holding Florida or Virginia. If that happens, the night will probably be settled pretty quickly in his favor– especially if Florida goes Democratic. If he holds both, it’s all over.
On the other hand, if Romney surges enough to flip Pennsylvania, then the chances for an Obama victory will narrow to the vanishing point. (It’s almost impossible to imagine an outcome where Obama loses Pennsylvania and wins Florida or Virginia, but that would obviously keep the night alive.)
If none of those surprises occur, I think we settle into a predictable pattern of watching Ohio — the most likely crux state — and a more surprising waiting game for the outcome in Wisconsin. Obama currently leads in both those states by roughly 2-3%, which is hardly a comforting margin for error.
Third Party factor?
One last footnote: The Washington Post has a strong piece today about some of the third party candidates, their debate and their issues, which you can read here.
For purposes of this blog post, it’s worth noting that in a very, very close race, the Libertarian and the Constitution Party would drain away meaningful support from Mitt Romney in Colorado, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Virginia.
The Post doesn’t offer an opinion about the Green Party candidate’s impact on Obama, but I suspect that his lack of interest in talking about climate change could cause some liberal Democrats to pull the lever for Jill Stein. Particular states to watch for her win-loss impact: Colorado and Wisconsin.
It’s your turn
So there you go. If there’s a take-away from all this, it’s simply that you should get out and vote. Whatever you believe, whoever you support, your ballot is a big deal. Please use it.