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State of the Race, Part 2: Why Romney Wins

By Sean Trende - September 20, 2012

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In fairness, we can’t be that precise with such a small number of observations. But it would also be foolish to ignore such a consistent trend. Absent some external shock, we can probably expect that the tendency will be for this race to tighten further.

4) Romney actually has led -- you just couldn’t see it. Much is made of the fact that Romney has never led in the RCP Average. But remember, throughout this cycle, most of the polls were using registered, rather than likely-voter, screens. There are good reasons for this, but if we’re going to do an apples-to-apples comparison, we have to take account of this fact.

Had pollsters turned on their likely-voter screens throughout, Romney and Obama probably would have been trading leads throughout the spring and summer. After all, Romney’s poll numbers would have been two-to-three points higher (given the average movement we saw when pollsters activated their likely-voter screens), and Obama’s lead fluctuated between 0.2 points and 3.8 points.

5) Obama’s job approval is still low. As I mentioned yesterday, it is significant that the president’s job approval is approaching 50 percent, as job approval and election outcomes correlate strongly. Put differently, presidents almost never receive a higher percentage of the vote than their approval percentage with the electorate.

But remember, Obama is still on a bit of a bounce. It is significant that he was able to approach the type of approval that he needs in order to win.

It just isn’t clear that this is enough. Again, the 2004 example is instructive. In early September, Bush’s average job approval was 51.4 percent, almost two points higher than Obama’s is today. And Bush’s convention was a full week earlier than Obama’s, so his bounce had already really faded by this point.

Remember, the strong tendency is that presidents run a few points behind their job approval numbers with the electorate. Bush’s job approval in the RCP Average on Election Day was 49.8 percent, but his job approval with the actual electorate according to the exit polls was 53 percent (this is also what Bush’s internal tracking numbers were showing). Had his job approval with the electorate been 49.8 percent, he probably would have lost.

Remember too that Obama probably has a bit of a higher hurdle to surmount than Bush had. While Republicans typically run ahead of polls of registered voters and adults, Democrats typically run behind them. Because job approval polling contains a mixture of these types of polls, Obama’s job approval with the actual electorate is probably a touch below his average right now.

6) Romney’s spending is just starting. This is something that everyone mentions, but then seems to forget: Romney and his allies will probably outspend the president heavily in the next two months.

I don’t think that matters in and of itself. After all, both candidates will have plenty of cash to make their cases, well past the point of diminishing returns.

What does matter, however, is how this disparity was attained. The Obama campaign spent heavily over the summer trying to soften up Romney. It’s unclear how well this worked -- the polls were pretty steady and Romney's favorables actually improved a bit -- but a large portion of the basic case against Romney has been made.

In the meantime, the Romney campaign had been very constrained in how it could spend its money; it was limited to primary funds until recently. That means the campaign has largely been outsourced to 527s and campaign committees.

This explains a lot of the Romney campaign to date. During the convention, a parade of people telling tear-jerking stories about how the nominee had helped them out made their way across the stage at the RNC. Stu Rothenberg wondered on Twitter why they hadn’t appeared in ads.

I suspect now that Romney can spend freely, they will appear. Quite frankly, they’ll probably be more effective in the fall, when people are paying attention. Whether this moves the dial is an unknown, but it is something of a contingency with substantial upside for Romney, which you have to figure in to any calculus about how the fall will play out.

Of course, the Romney campaign may just try to dump $250 million in negative ads on the president’s head. I think that would be foolish -- and ineffective -- but we have to acknowledge the possibility there.

7) The gaffes don’t matter. Everyone interested in elections should read this post from John Sides at The Monkey Cage. It makes an important point: Though gaffes set political analysts scurrying to their keyboards, they tend not to affect the average voter.

We see this with the now-infamous “47 percent” comment. Gallup described the statement and asked how it would affect respondents’ votes. Twenty percent said it would make them more likely to vote for Romney, 36 percent said less likely, and 43 percent said it would make no difference.

Drilling down to self-described Independents, 15 percent said it would make them more likely to support Romney, 29 percent less likely, and 53 percent said it would make no difference. You can try to sex that up (as Gallup did) to read that Independents say it makes them less likely to vote for Romney by a 2-1 margin, but you could just as easily say that three-quarters of independents say the gaffe makes no difference or helps Romney.

8) People haven’t made up their minds. Finally, it is important to remember that all the claims about people’s minds being set in stone don’t jibe with what respondents tell pollsters. Table 3 shows when voters have made up their minds over the past four elections. Though the percentage of late-undecideds is diminishing, unless there is a major drop-off this cycle, we can safely say that the decisions of a fairly wide swath of the electorate are not yet firm.

So if the election were held today, President Obama would probably win comfortably. But the election isn’t today. In the next seven weeks, the economy, the president’s tepid job approval ratings, and Romney’s spending campaign will continue to exert gravitational forces on Obama’s re-election efforts, along with the typical gravitational forces that drag down a post-convention bounce. Can these forces move things three points in seven weeks? It’s not a particularly tall order.

Tomorrow we’ll wrap up all of this, with some additional thoughts on the next four years. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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