WASHINGTON — As the economy colors and polarizes voters' attitudes, the Election Day outcome for President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney may be decided on the margins by narrower issues that energize small but crucial slivers of the population.
For three months, the economy by most measures has faltered. Yet the White House contest has remained locked in place, with the incumbent holding on to a slight national lead or in a virtual tie with his rival. Analysts from both parties have no doubt that absent a defining, unpredictable moment, the race will remain neck and neck until November.
That, several strategists say, means secondary issues such as health care, immigration, education, even little mentioned social issues such as abortion, guns or gay rights could make a difference when targeted to the right audiences. Under those conditions, the advantage, these strategists say, rests with Obama.
"Part of the power of the presidency, part of the power of incumbency, is having the ability with an executive order to make rules, make effective law that is deeply satisfying to a large group of supporters," said Steve Schmidt, Republican John McCain's presidential campaign manager in 2008 and top aide in President George W. Bush's re-election operation. "Being able to deliver if you're an incumbent president for really important parts of the Democratic party coalition, that's an enormously important thing."
Obama already has moved to shore up his support with certain voting blocs, with directives on birth control and immigration. He's given his backing to gay marriage and brawled with congressional Republicans on behalf of lower student loan rates. Each issue won praise from disparate groups of voters, many of whom had voiced frustration with the president or whose enthusiasm for Obama had been waning.
"In every single state there will be micro-targeted advertisement, direct mail, or online campaign to get voters out there to kind of hit them on those personal issues that are important to them," said Rodell Mollineau, president of a pro-Obama political organization, American Bridge. "Whether you're pro-choice or anti-choice, pro-immigration or anti-immigration, you will be touched one way or the other."
The role of these secondary issues is similar to the part that gay marriage ballot initiatives played in the 2004 contest between President George W. Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry. That election was dominated by the war in Iraq and national security issues. Though the extent to which 11 ballot issues, especially ones in Michigan and Ohio, helped turn out Bush voters eight years ago is a matter of debate, many analysts believe the initiatives at least primed the vote for the incumbent.
As for Romney and Obama, "neither of them seems to be delivering a knockout blow on the economy, and that's what does raise these issues and their salience," said Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida who researched the role ballot initiatives played in the 2004 election.
For three months, the economy has created jobs at a snail's pace and the unemployment rate has inched up from 8.1 percent to 8.2 percent. Economic growth has slowed, consumer confidence is down, and a strong majority of the public views the country heading in the wrong track.
For all that, an Associated Press/GfK poll last month had Romney and Obama in a statistical tie and a Washington Post-ABC poll this week had them even at 47 percent each. More remarkable, a majority in both polls – 56 percent in the AP poll and 58 percent in the Post-ABC survey – said they believed Obama would win re-election.
The Romney camp says the contest is still taking shape and Romney is just now beginning to garner a national profile.
"You still have a president who is enjoying the benefits of incumbency," said Kevin Madden, a senior Romney adviser. "He gets a lot more attention, and has a higher profile with voters."
Ever disciplined, Romney has kept his campaign message exclusively on economic themes, casting the election as a referendum on Obama's economic stewardship. Even when he has strayed into side issues such as health care and the Supreme Court's decision to uphold Obama's signature law, Romney has kept his argument focused on the economics of the law.
At Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago, the election is being framed as one of choices between Romney and Obama on economic themes.
"The fact that Romney hasn't gotten traction is not a reflection that there is stasis on economic issues," said Obama senior political adviser David Axelrod. "It's a reflection of the fact he hasn't offered a plausible alternative. I think that's why he's running into problems."
Still, Axelrod said: "There's no doubt that people will consider other things, and if it's a close call for them I think some of these other things matter."
Axelrod cited education as an important factor, particularly with women, and he contrasted Obama's desire to finance education programs with Romney's wish to cut taxes for millionaires. "For these folks, it's part of the economic discussion, not separate from it," Axelrod said.
Axelrod also mentioned Romney's position on immigration and his pledge to defund Planned Parenthood as issues that are important to certain groups of voters. "How Romney has handled himself on those issues is meaningful," he said.
"People have broad concerns, and some of these issues will be influential," he added. "Other issues may move some who are on the bubble, but rebuilding the economy and the middle class is the overwhelmingly the top concern."
No side issue stands out more than immigration in its ability to energize and mobilize a bloc of voters. Obama had promised a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system when he ran in 2008. But Obama put the issue on the back burner after support for immigration changes failed to gel, and Hispanic voters grew resentful.
But last month he acted on his own, expanding the authority of the federal government to exempt certain immigrants from deportation and making them eligible for work permits. The stance contrasted sharply with Romney's. During the Republican primaries, he took a hard line against illegal immigration.
One ad this past week aired in Nevada by the Service Employees International Union and the pro-Obama Priorities Action political action committee states that Romney "has not demonstrated that he respects the Latino community."
Romney is running Spanish language ads himself and Madden says the challenge for Obama is that until he issued an administrative directive five months before the election Obama had not acted on his promise to Hispanics.
But Schmidt says Republicans are in a bad position with Hispanics these days.
"Nevada and New Mexico are going to be very, very important states," he said. "The numbers aren't where you want them to be if you're a Republican wanting Mitt Romney to win."