“[Mitt Romney has] had a tough couple of weeks. Let's be honest. I mean I'm not going to sit here and come on this morning and-- and sugarcoat the last couple of weeks. They've been tough. But here's the great news for Republicans. We have a candidate who is going to do extraordinarily well on Wednesday night.”
-- Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., on “Face the Nation.”
A new poll from The Hill says that 87 percent of Democratic voters believe that President Obama will win the election 36 days hence. That’s up from 78 percent a month ago.
That degree of overconfidence among Democrats should be ringing alarm bells for the president and his team.
It’s understandable that Democrats would feel this way. Check any establishment news outlet or skim the sluiceway of popular culture, and the message is clear: the game is over, now it’s time to start running up the score.
The basis for this oft-reported narrative are polls that show Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney trailing and losing ground as the race heads into its final month.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll out today would seem to nicely confirm the “Romney is a loser” meme. The survey shows a neck-and-neck race nationally, but an 11-point blowout in swing states.
But a poll conducted for Politico shows the battleground race as a dead heat with Romney gaining ground and leading by 4 points among independents.
Or take must-win Ohio. Is Obama leading Romney by 10 points as a poll conducted for the New York Times and CBS news said last week or the 4 points by which he is leading in the poll from Democratic pollsters Public Policy Polling out today.
It’s the same in several individual swing states: polls are bouncing around like a super ball chucked into a culvert.
There are serious challenges for pollsters today. It’s harder and harder to get folks at home, especially those who are willing to complete sometimes-lengthy surveys. For example, how many cell phone numbers, the holders of which are younger and Democratic leaning, should be included in a poll?
But these challenges don’t mean that polling should be disregarded. It just bears close examination.
Some on the right have chosen to simply dismiss polls as the deviltry of the mainstream press, which conservatives say is cooking the books to sap Republican enthusiasm. There’s plenty of danger in Republicans ignoring the polls, especially when it prevents people from seeing real peril for their cause.
It would seem that the Romney camp is not ignoring the polls, launching this week a new push about this being a “choice” election.
Romney has long resisted the idea of a stark choice and an ideological election, instead preferring to make the election a referendum on Obama’s competency as president.
With Romney having been so often depicted as a bumbler and a odd duck, the former Massachusetts governor was setting himself up for a loss in an election that was all about job performance. Obama claims he embraces the idea of a “choice” election, but has mostly made his campaign about a series of very personal attacks on Romney.
Rather than keep playing on the same ground, the Romney camp is venturing forth into the wilderness of “choice,” casting the election not as a race between two nice fellows but very different aptitudes for governing into one that casts two wholly different views of the proper role of government itself.
It’s riskier, to be sure, but it offers the only path to victory for Romney. Voters, especially at a time of national malaise and international crisis, are loathe to make a change on resume points alone.
While there is peril for Republicans in deluding themselves into rejecting polling outright (and few really do based on how quickly those who say the polls lie will brandish a more favorable survey), there is even greater danger in placing too much faith in them at this point in the election.
The massive confidence expressed in the new Hill poll suggests Democrats believe this election is over. The irony here is that much of Obama’s improved standing in recent polls reflects a jump in Democratic enthusiasm and interest in the race. After considering in August the real possibility that Obama, to whom many Democrats attribute supernatural-seeming gifts and abilities, the Blue Team rallied and got on the march.
But now, having been again reassured that Romney is as incompetent as he is evil, Democrats figure this race is over and have told themselves that 2012’s electoral map may look nearly as blue as the one in 2008. Democrats, who usually under-perform the polls when it comes to actual turnout, may be tempted to lay back and watch their man make mincemeat out of a challenger they consider unworthy.
As Power Play’s dear old daddy always says about golf, “Play the game with fear and trepidation.” That’s not what rank-and-file Democrats are doing right now.
Ironically, the Obama team is making the same mistakes that the Romney team made back when it believed that the fundamental structure of the race favored their candidate: trying to sit on the ball.
Consider the president’s bungle on the terrorist attack in Libya and ongoing deterioration of the American position in the Muslim world, including deadly results in Afghanistan. Rather than being bold and reinforcing his role as commander in chief, Obama tried to minimize the severity of the moment. It may have seemed smart to have the president dodge the T word, but in hindsight Obama clearly should have called the Benghazi attack “terrorism” rather than trying to hide from the issue.
The president and his team have all along warned supporters that the race would be tighter than 2008, but they also clearly ascribe to the same view of the electorate that Romney does: a narrow, rigidly partisan electorate with just a few truly moderate voters in the middle.
And just as Romney once believed that he could play a prevent defense and win a close game, Obama now seems to think that if he can just run out the clock he can do the same.
But the wide swings in recent poll should be cause for alarm in Chicago. As we look at a slew of polls examining how many voters’ minds are made up, we repeatedly see that some 15 percent consider themselves persuadable. Some of this is voters flattering themselves as open-minded and fair, but there’s pretty strong evidence that an electorate dissatisfied with its options might yet decide to take a chance on something new.
In re-elections, voters are answering two questions: do they wish to keep the incumbent and is the alternative plausible. While the president has fought his way back to the upper 40s on job approval, there’s no doubt that most voters would very much like something different.
As skeptical and unhappy voters start paying closer attention to the race, they are in the process of answering the question about Romney. While the decision may yet be rendered that Romney isn’t up to the job, this election is very much in play.
While the last re-election campaign was a narrow base-versus-base contest, this one may look more like previous re-election years in which voters wait to make up their minds and can swing sharply in the closing weeks.
If Obama and his team are counting on riding out the current trend into a November victory, they may be in for an unhappy surprise. If Republicans are getting real about the state of the race, this is no time for Democrats to engage in premature triumphalism.
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.