Five days from Election Day both campaigns will tell us that they’re right where they want to be. Both can’t be right about that. Five days from Election Day, the national polls tend to show Mitt Romney leading Barack Obama, but the state polls tend to say that Obama leads in the swing states that matter most. Both can’t be right about that, for the simple reason that swing states tend to be swing states because they tend to mirror the national political divide.
The question is, where are we, really?
No one, especially after the hurricane on the east coast has scrambled everything, knows for sure. Much of the evidence is like that beach sign someone made on the Jersey shore spelling “ROMNEY” — ambiguous. Was the sign a show of support, or was it a bitter Democrat trying to attach some sort of blame to him?
The polls aren’t much help. As I noted before, the state and national polls are diverging. The national pollsters tend to have been in business longer and use larger sample sizes, which should favor them. But the state pollsters may be obtaining more granular data that can be more accurate.
Or not. Today’s Marist poll of Iowa, for instance, is definitely overcounting early voters by a wide margin. Marist says 45% of Iowans have already voted, but the state’s official stats say that just 32.2 percent have already voted. If that kind of poll is your “gold standard,” you may be overvaluing fool’s gold. There’s a hint here not that Marist is engaged in shenanigans, but that people tell pollsters things that are not true. Some will tell pollsters that they have already voted because it makes them sound responsible, just as some will claim to support same-sex marriage when they don’t because that’s the politically correct answer. If supporting Obama is the politically correct answer, and in many swing states it probably is to a few percent of voters, then Obama’s support is being overcounted.
More than any poll, it’s wise to watch the campaigns. Watch their body language and their travel and spending patterns. Looking at both campaigns from that point of view, it’s very clear that five days from the election the Obama campaign is in retreat. This morning, Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter accidentally admitted that they’re no longer competing in North Carolina, which Obama won four years ago.
That admission parallels David Axelrod’s mustache bet: He only wagered a shave if Obama lost all of three states that just a couple of weeks ago were supposedly in the bag for Obama. That’s hardly a courageous bet. At the same time, Romney is going up with ads in Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in addition to the swing states that he is already advertising in and campaigning in either directly or via surrogates. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, two states Obama must have in order to win, are definitely in play.
Today, Romney is working Obama’s silly “Secretary of Business” idea into his closing argument. This is very shrewd in the lead-up to the final unemployment numbers before the election, and a sign that Romney is staying on offense and dictating the terms of the battle. Obama’s proposal should strike any American who has ever dealt with any large bureaucracy as unserious. It amounts to moving boxes and names around on an org chart rather than thinking outside his state-centered ideology. And if it was such a good idea, why didn’t Obama propose it four years ago when he had control of Congress and could have gotten it done? He elevated the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations to cabinet level, but did not think to “streamline” the government’s business bureaucracy at the same time? Why not?
Just going by body language, the Romney campaign is on offense. They are expanding the map well into Obama’s so-called firewall states and are right at the margin of error in states where polls give the Democrats percentage and turnout advantages that don’t square up with reality. In order for Obama to win states like Ohio and Iowa, he would have to be more popular in them now than he was four years ago, Republicans would have to be less enthused to vote for Romney than they were to vote for McCain, and undecided independents would have to defy history and break for the incumbent rather than the challenger. None of those appear to be likely. Additionally, the Republicans and allied super PACs will be spending the same as or more than their Democratic counterparts this time. They were outspent heavily last time, thanks in part to Obama’s broken promise on rejecting federal spending limits.
Beyond these facts, Karl Rove looks at what’s happening on the ground right now in Ohio.
Adrian Gray, who oversaw the Bush 2004 voter-contact operation and is now a policy analyst for a New York investment firm, makes the point that as of Tuesday, 530,813 Ohio Democrats had voted early or had requested or cast an absentee ballot. That’s down 181,275 from four years ago. But 448,357 Ohio Republicans had voted early or had requested or cast an absentee ballot, up 75,858 from the last presidential election.
That 257,133-vote swing almost wipes out Mr. Obama’s 2008 Ohio victory margin of 262,224. Since most observers expect Republicans to win Election Day turnout, these early vote numbers point toward a Romney victory in Ohio. They are also evidence that Scott Jennings, my former White House colleague and now Romney Ohio campaign director, was accurate when he told me that the Buckeye GOP effort is larger than the massive Bush 2004 get-out-the-vote operation.
Add to this another fundamental change in voter attitudes. Despite the fact that the big three networks have largely ignored the Benghazi scandal, a Fox poll suggests that the story has broken through and it is hurting the president’s image. Benghazi has joined the economy as twin problems for the president. Nearly half believe that the president misled Americans on Benghazi, and 49 percent of independents agree. Overall 47 percent disapprove of the way Obama has handled Libya and 45 percent believe that his policies on that country and Egypt have “mostly failed.” Worse, 55 percent believe that Obama has been “too soft” on radical Muslim terrorists. At the same time, the president is losing the argument on the economy by 52-45. That roughly mirrors the Gallup national poll’s results on relative support for Romney over Obama.
Five days out, the race for president is far from over, but once you get past the oversampling of Democrats in swing state polls, the fundamentals and the campaigns’ body language point toward a Romney victory on Tuesday. Tomorrow’s jobs numbers may be the president’s last chance to change the trajectory of the race.