The October 3, 2012 debate between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama is shaping up to be a make or break moment for Governor Romney. A slew of national and state polling since the two party conventions shows that the president has built a steady lead in the national popular vote and in the all-important Electoral College according to the average of polls compiled from RealClearPolitics.com. If the election were held today the president would likely win around 50 to 51 percent of the popular vote and between 332 and 342 electoral votes according to battleground state polls taken by numerous news agencies. With his vice-presidential pick announced, and his convention behind him, this isn’t where the Republican Nominee would have hoped to be against the president going into the first debate. Quite simply the month of September has been disastrous for the GOP campaign. The flubbed Libya reaction and the infamous “47%” video comments have led to one bad news cycle after another for Romney. The former Governor of Massachusetts must change the trajectory of the race if he is to win and his last chance, barring unexpected events that could politically weaken the president, will be when the two candidates meet in their first debate Wednesday in Denver, Colorado. But going into this first debate, Romney faces an uphill climb.
It’s true though that one should not dismiss the ability for a presidential challenger to shake up the state of the race with a solid, strong debate performance. All one needs to do is look back to the 2004 race between John Kerry and George W. Bush to see how a presidential debate can change the trajectory of an election. In September of 2004 the polling was breaking for President Bush much like it is for Obama now but Kerry decisively won the first debate and ended up making the race a true tossup to the very end (ominously for Romney, Kerry ended up narrowly losing). Likewise, a strong debate performance by Romney could change the image that a growing number of voters have developed towards him and lead them to shift his way instead of breaking towards the incumbent like they have up to this point. Will Romney deliver such a performance? That is the question Republican and Conservative strategists hope will be answered with a yes. For Romney to win the election it is his only chance that leads to victory. The reason why is simple, the political environment has changed to the challengers detriment since the party conventions. Here are three reasons why this is the case:
The latest polls show the president near or right around the critical mark of 50% approval. The latest average by RealClearPolitics.com that compiles all of the national polls has Obama’s approval rating at 49.9%. Obama is on the cusp of victory with a number at 50% and it should be noted that many polling firms show the president at or over 50% like the Gallup tracking, CNN, Washington Post, and NBC Wall Street Journal. This is critical in looking at the challenger’s chance for victory because a president’s approval rating always resembles what percentage of the vote he/she will get on Election Day. Quite simply, if nothing else changes and Romney gets every undecided vote he will still come up short since a majority of the voters “approve” of the president’s performance. In the debate Romney has to drive down Obama’s approval ratings a little bit so he has a better chance to get those “persuadable” voters who were “disapproving” of the president last year but now “approve.”
Direction of the Country
Long considered by political operatives and political scientists as a good gauge on how the election will turn out, these sets of numbers, while still a net negative for the president, have also seen improvement since the Democratic Convention. The average of voters who say the country is going in the right direction has climbed to 38% nationwide and in many battleground states they have gone up in the 40s. This is in contrast to these numbers being in the low 30s and 20s before the conventions last month. Romney has to make his case against Obama in a forceful way that puts the president on the defensive and drives down the amount of people who think the nation is headed in the “right” direction.
Who Voters Trust and Economic Optimism
Up until last month, the one advantage Romney had over Obama was with the question on who would best handle the economy, the single biggest issue for the overwhelming majority of the electorate. In the last month, Romney’s advantage has evaporated and is no better than even with Obama on that question. If a president who has presided over 8% unemployment for 42 consecutive months can draw that question to a draw than one can easily see where this is election is going. But these numbers are connected to a rising number of Americans who feel optimistic where the economy will be next year and that is a huge advantage for President Obama. In addition, the rise in economic optitmism is correlated to a rise in Obama’s approval ratings, peoples increasingly optimistic view on the direction of the country, and the tightening numbers on who voters trust to handle the economy.
Romney’s challenge is not impossible but it is certainly uphill. But the debate on Wednesday is his one and only chance to shake the race up and to make the case for why Obama should be fired and why he should be hired. It’s fair to note that most observers would conclude that Romney’s challenge isn’t to show that he’s presidential; there have been many occasions where one could picture him as president. Romney’s challenge, however, is to show the American people where he would take the country and that he understands the troubles of an average working class American. Romney has to connect with the people on a gut check level so the undecided or persuadable voter comes away with the impression that this guy gets it and is fighting for the country. If he does that and Obama stumbles, this race will close up dramatically and Romney could very well be elected president on November 6.