Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have had a fairly great couple of weeks, with Ryan clearly energizing the ticket and giving Romney himself an extra step in his stride.
But even with the Romney bouncelet, the basic dynamics of the race remain unchanged. The contest is tied nationally among likely voters (Obama has a strong advantage when all registered voters are polled) and the president has a sizable advantage in the electoral college standings.
This EC advantage for the Democrats has, however, eroded somewhat. Before August, the Democrat’s lead was a mile wide an an inch deep. Now it’s a mile wide and half an inch deep.
According to the latest polls (and these are very fresh indeed), Obama currently leads by 3 points or more in states that give him 246 EC votes, just 24 shy of the total needed to win. Again, most of these polls now frame “likely voters”.
Obama leads more narrowly in states that would give him a total of 303 EC votes — 33 more than he needs to capture a second term.
The great news for Romney is that he’s closed the gap significantly, even in states like Wisconsin and Colorado that had seemed to be creeping out of reach.
With 72 days to go before the election, overcoming 2 and 3 point deficits looks much more feasible than overcoming 5 and 6 point gaps, obviously.
But there is a problem for Romney: The electorate seems pretty stubborn this year. Nothing is moving the needles very far or very fast. And Romney has yet to fully capture an important state.
His path would be much, much easier if, say, Florida or Virginia had shifted firmly into his column.
So far, the Republican appears to have locked down Missouri and North Carolina. But those states are merely keeping him in the game.
Right now, if nothing changes, Romney will have to run the table on election night, winning upset after upset. Where Obama just needs one or two key wins, the Republicans will have to capture five or six make-or-break states.
That’s doable, but it’s a high-wire act and it’s not where the GOP wants to be.
So the stakes for this Republican convention remain sky-high. If Romney and Ryan can build on the flutters of momentum that we’ve seen in recent days, this becomes a barnstormer of a contest in September and October.
That means softening his corporate image. It probably also means laying out a more positive, more specific vision for the country, one that includes some specific policy ideas — and not just a repudiation of Obama.
The GOP will also have to find a way to talk about social issues — abortion, contraception, and Christian traditionalism — in ways that won’t alienate independent voters in states like Colorado, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.
I’ll also be interested to see if Republicans can find a message that softens the alienation they’re experiencing currently with women and Hispanics.
If not, Romney 2012 may begin to look more and more like Kerry 2004: another Massachusetts challenger who set the stage for a possible upset, but couldn’t quite close the deal.