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Are We Looking at an Undertow Election?

Are We Looking at an Undertow Election?

By Ben Domenech - October 30, 2012

The nature of elections is to surprise. Candidates who are thought to be safe lose races where they insufficiently recognized potential threats. Incumbents with enormous built-in advantages squander their opportunities to define the opposition. Challengers lose because they fail to adequately inspire and motivate the base to engage in an election, overselling themselves to the meandering middle and losing the people who actually walk precincts and get people to the polls. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have made none of these mistakes. And so the polls today are close as they have ever been.

Yet I still think there's potential for this election to surprise. John Podhoretz said months ago that he believed if Obama wins, it would be a narrow victory, likely with one state as the margin – but that if Romney wins, it will be a wave election. I don't think a wave is possible at this point – we'd be seeing the signs of it already, with Romney leading definitively in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and flirting with Michigan and Pennsylvania. He is leading in none of those states as the polls tell it – he is either matching Obama stride for stride or he's a few steps behind. But the coalition he's forming in each state is relatively similar: he is maximizing the white vote and retaking the suburbs, winning all but a slice of blue collar Catholics who still seem off limits, and performing the best among independents (albeit a more conservative faction than it was four years ago) as any Republican candidate in the past two decades.

The Romney-Ryan culturally Midwestern ticket is doing what it was meant to do: give Republicans a real shot at states that have struggled economically all across the Rust Belt. I maintain this is still a short-sighted strategy for the party – that they should have focused more in this election on solidifying their appeal to Hispanics and Asian voters – but as a short-term strategy, it could prove enough to win a close election.

Except... it may not be a close election. Readers know I'm generally skeptical of the utility of polls and poll analysts. Each pollster approaches the electorate with their built-in biases, and simple questions (such as how significant of a percentage should come from cell phone-only households) will result in completely different answers depending on which pollster you ask. The polls also do not reflect rapid movement well, as we saw best in 2000, when George W. Bush was thought to be on the verge of a popular vote landslide but the electoral college was a sticking point. The late-breaking news of his prior DUI sucked the oxygen out of Bush's campaign, increasing the doubts of independents overnight, and leading millions of evangelical voters to stay home rather than make a decision between a candidate they didn’t like and a candidate they didn’t trust. This story exposed all the questions voters had about his ability to be Commander in Chief, and the whiplash effect was only mitigated by good fortune and some key GOTV advantages.

The polls are more sophisticated twelve years later, but they still can only tell us so much. And what they have to tell isn't the whole story. A wave election is something you can generally see coming, rising above the surface, crushing everything in its path. But an undertow election isn't something you can see. It pulls underneath the surface with sudden strength, sucking away a base of support thought to be reliable, the ground evaporating underneath you as you claw to stay afloat. It's maddening for campaigns when voters you had counted as baked in to your models decide they have something better to do on Tuesday. Bush experienced this because of a news story. The Obama campaign may be experiencing something similar now – which may explain their strategic flailing over the past few weeks.

The Colorado debate was the Emperor has no clothes moment of this campaign: it gave undecided and wavering voters, many of whom want very much for Obama to succeed, to question whether it was acceptable after all to vote against the nation's first black president. And for wavering Obama supporters, it was a reminder – along with his performance in the weeks since – that the thrill is gone from voting for him.

This is a question few journalists have really dug into this cycle: how dedicated is Obama's base of support? How shaky is the backing which is elevating him above a tie in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and elsewhere? After a billion dollars of spending, are they fired up and ready to go? Or has Obama lost his winning aura among them, perhaps for good? They may not like Mitt Romney enough to vote for him. But if you believe the polls, even the ones where Obama is ahead, they no longer dislike Romney as much as they once did – and they may even like him more than they do the president. As the approval advantage has evaporated to below fifty percent, no one in the old media seems to be questioning the assumption that Obama will maximize the votes of the 47-48 percent of people who still approve of him, or at least tell pollsters they do. This is possible. It’s also very unlikely.

From the beginning, I've questioned the strategic choices of the Romney campaign. I think they've made dozens of wrongheaded decisions. They have completely failed to emphasize certain issues which would've helped them with key constituencies, they've reacted in knee jerk fashion to attacks, and they allowed Romney to be defined negatively in the late summer in a way which could still prove too large an obstacle to overcome. But as much as I question their strategic minds, it's been clear from day one that Romney's operational prowess is second to none, and getting out the vote isn't a question of strategy but operation. Even given that the state Republican parties are shouldering much of this effort, and even given all the advantages Team Obama was likely to have in that arena, if Team Romney could end up close to matching them in this respect, we could be looking at an undertow election like none we've seen before. This would reflect not so much a groundswell as a cave-in, one where independents did not shift to Romney but away from Obama, where the bottom truly drops out of the Obama effort, and the story the left focuses on for the next year is why in the world those people stayed home.

If this happens, it won't be a late night after all. 

Benjamin Domenech is editor of The Transom. Click here to subscribe.

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