“We’ve got to make people understand that what they’re seeing is not the real Mitt Romney.”
-- President Obama’s top political adviser, David Plouffe, describing the president’s re-election message, according to top campaign advisers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal for the piece “Obama Adviser’s Strategy Is High Risk, High Reward.”
A deadlocked race on the first day of November means a wild ride for Election Day and a boost for antacid sales in Boston and Chicago.
With five days to go, both campaigns can make a convincing argument for why they will have the edge on Tuesday.
Team Obama says that the tide came in for Romney, but not high enough to carry him to an electoral victory in Ohio and the rest of the Rust Belt. A slew of polls that show Romney falling just short in this region make a powerful argument for the president’s closing theory of the race. Those polls provide fresh fodder for the establishment press narrative that holds that Obama will be re-elected.
Team Romney can argue just as convincingly that close is good enough for the Republican nominee. Romney’s advisers point to high voter intensity on the Republican side and a strong performance for the GOP nominee with several groups that were key to Obama’s 2008 victory. The Romney theory is that they have the edge in a race that goes down to the wire.
Either side could be right, and unlike the previous two elections, the polls don’t give us a clear indication of where this race is heading.
But if the challenger is going to win, it will be because of these three things:
The riskiest part of President Obama’s re-election strategy was to spend so much of his campaign and his campaign’s money on the attack. Knowing that voters remained unsatisfied with the status quo, Obamaland focused on disqualifying Mitt Romney, often to the detriment of making the president’s own case.
But it didn’t work. The latest FOX News poll shows Romney and Obama tied on favorability, and both over 50 percent. The same is true in most polls. After all of the millions in negative advertising spent attacking Romney’s character, he survived (as did his running mate, Paul Ryan).
Obama will spend the final five days making a more positive closing argument, but he will do so in an atmosphere in which he and his challenger are both deemed plausible.
Democrats have been suffering with an enthusiasm gap since the early days of the Obama era. The president’s decision to move left after taking office and stay there hardened Republican opposition and boosted a traditional turnout advantage for the Red Team.
The Obama Democrats argued that superior resources and a community organizing approach to governance and campaigning would allow Obama to overwhelm the organic advantage of the Republicans. The GOP may have a more fired-up base, argued Team Obama, but time and money would allow Democrats to close the gap.
That didn’t happen either.
Early voting is the best indicator we have for base enthusiasm. The weeks of early voting that now precede Election Day are the best chance for Democrats to win elections. This is not a time when undecided or even many persuadable voters go to the polls, but instead partisans show their ardor.
The latest Pew study and a slew of others show that what had been a huge advantage for Obama has been erased and maybe even reversed.
In 2008, Obama led Republican nominee John McCain 52 percent to 34 percent among early voters (19 percent then as it is now) in the Pew survey. Now, Romney leads 50 percent to 42 percent.
Democrats have long assumed that Romney would win among the votes cast on Election Day but were counting on early votes to carry Obama through. If the early vote in swing states is even close, it will be hard for Obama to win.
Romney leads widely among the most passionate voters – 9 points in the most recent Politico/George Washington University survey of battleground state voters – and Republicans have managed to match Democrats when it comes to contacting voters directly.
Team Obama staked nearly as much on ground game superiority and getting out the vote as it did on the “kill Mitt” strategy. Again, the Blue Team did not deliver.
Americans have grown largely frustrated with both parties and the trend toward political independence is really the biggest political story of the past two decades.
Independent is not synonymous with moderate since voters disaffected with the partisan status quo range from very liberal to very conservative. The universe of independents is a parallel to the overall electorate, but more unpredictable in voting habits.
But with both parties dug in deeply, the independent vote is the most promising field of persuadable voters.
Self-identified Democrats usually outnumber self-identified Republicans. Republicans therefore rely on the aforementioned turnout advantage combined with support from independents to win elections. That’s certainly the case this year.
If the combination of organic enthusiasm and effective ground game for Republicans can offset the Democrats numerical advantage, then it would be support from independents that could put Romney over the top.
And in that measure, Romney is succeeding by a wide margin.
In the latest FOX News poll, Romney holds a 7-point lead among independent voters, with 16 percent on the fence or supporting a marginal candidate. Romney lost 2 points of his advantage with the group from the beginning of the month as the pool of undecided voters shrank from 25 percent.
But it seems highly unlikely that the incumbent will get half of those remaining. Of those who consider themselves unaffiliated and undecided, the challenger, especially one with majority favorability and an equally matched voter outreach, has a clear advantage over the incumbent.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“The Axelrod mustache promise has doubled my intensity. I'm going to go out there and vote twice on Election Day.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.