The most recent spate of polling data shows a dead heat for the 2012 election based on national averages — but those who've been through an American election before know that the real game is played at the state level.
Nate Silver's breakdown of the numbers shows President Obama with the shortest (and thus more likely) path to victory by way of Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa and Nevada. Yet, hopes that Mitt Romney's bump from the first debate has been diminished seem unfounded; voters in Virginia, Colorado and Florida were on the edge before the first debate, and Romney gained momentum there. There was less good news for the DCCC as tied Congressional districts started to lean harder into the red, according to the Cook Report's latest data.
Furthermore, last minute endorsements could be compelling to the tiny but still influential category of undecided voters — particularly those in the business community. After sitting out the race, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg cast a clear endorsement on behalf of President Obama. The mayor, working to recover the city from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, made a clear link between the president's position on climate change and his own. The business-savvy leader may not have made up his mind based on economic policy — but to those on Wall Street who are still stuck in traffic or without power, his choice may ring a little closer to home. The Economist also cast its endorsement for President Obama, albeit reluctantly:
"Many of The Economist’s readers, especially those who run businesses in America, may well conclude that nothing could be worse than another four years of Mr. Obama. We beg to differ. For all his businesslike intentions, Mr. Romney has an economic plan that works only if you don’t believe most of what he says. That is not a convincing pitch for a chief executive. And for all his shortcomings, Mr. Obama has dragged America’s economy back from the brink of disaster, and has made a decent fist of foreign policy. So this newspaper would stick with the devil it knows, and re-elect him." (Read the full endorsement here.)
That lukewarm endorsement appeared validated by Friday's jobs report, which showed a gain of 171,000 jobs in the last month. Unemployment went up from 7.8% to 7.9%. There is a strong concern that the economic impact from Hurricane Sandy — now estimated at $50 billion — will have a national impact. But it might be for the better if Congress wakes up to the irreversible damage it would inflict by wandering off the fiscal cliff ahead of it and imposing sequestration instead of investing in the critical repairs and infrastructure investment needed. Expect strong calls from Bloomberg and New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie to get the investment they need — both men have spoken in favor of Obama and the role of federal government in disaster recovery over the last few days.
Polling data and endorsements mean one thing at this point in the race: momentum. Voters who believe that they're on a 'winning' team are more likely to turn out — and in an age of social media peer reinforcement, those voters are more likely to bring other voters with them to the polls. That's enough to make campaign organizers work overtime to both get out the vote and argue forcefully that their candidate has the key advantage — it's the last, and most important bit of persuasion they need to do to capture the win.
When it comes to the influence of debates, as Charlie Cook and Nate Silver both indicate, the first presidential debate appears to have given an advantage to its winner: Mitt Romney. The president's underwhelming performance wasn't repeated in the second and third debates — and Vice President Biden's debate against Paul Ryan had many wondering if there should be a 'mercy rule' — but if Twitter data is anything to go by, you don't get second chances with the American TV audience. Record-breaking numbers for the first debate were not followed up in subsequent debates; the Fox News audience, however, had its biggest night for the third debate with 11.5 million viewers. (The Fox broadcast network covered sports that evening.)
The close state of the race brings us to the scenario of an Electoral College tie. However, this outcome is far from certain — and what happens next is quite unclear. A rash of voter ID laws passed in the last two years (several of which have been pushed back or contested) provides legal grounds for challenges to vote counts in several key states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio. Any allegations of vote suppression could also be more charged this year after Romney's "47%" statement made it clear that the Republican candidate has no hope of winning votes from African Americans, other minority voters and millions more. That statement fueled arguments that voter ID laws are thinly veiled attempts to suppress votes that the GOP can't win — including registered students, the elderly, and thousands of urban voters who lack a driver's license or another form of government-issued photo ID. Bottom line: Don't expect to see a re-run of the 2000 election. 2012 is a whole new ballgame.