This week, the frenzied activity of the campaign trail seems to hit a caesura, of sorts, perhaps because now that we're at, or near, a halfway point between the party conventions and Election Day, with a quartet of looming debates set to begin Wednesday. So, the world of politics took a bit of a pause. We railed against replacement refs, atoned for whatever we said in the heat of that railing, and took a moment to catch our breath. And what we couldn't help but notice was that in this brief intermission, a distinct mood had settled in -- that the competitive part of the election was over, and that the GOP challenger, Mitt Romney, was toast.

Of course, it's understandable -- the vast majority of the numbers we saw in the polls were nothing but grim for Romney. Many of the critical bounces that President Barack Obama had opened in important swing states continued to flower in the direction of the incumbent. And the Gallup daily tracking poll, which had suggested a narrowing only a week ago, had broken back in the president's favor as well. One of the states we'd all but penciled into Romney's column from jump, North Carolina, was seemingly wavering. Obama was mulling a play for Arizona.

In addition, the quasi-history of recent elections strongly suggests that the end of September is a point of no return in presidential politics, where the leader tends to hold that lead until the end. And while Romney actually had a good week, relatively speaking -- he didn't stride headlong into hidden rakes, a la Sideshow Bob of "Simpsons" fame -- the significance of his "47 percent" remarks from prior weeks continued to resonate, and resonate more deeply.

Most importantly, however, there was mounting evidence that Romney's central argument was failing on the battlegrounds where -- and with the voters who -- it most needed to succeed. As Steve Kornacki wrote on Salon.com, "By a 51-45 percent margin in Ohio, voters believe Obama is better equipped to handle it than Romney. In Florida, the spread is 51-46 percent. And clear majorities of voters in both states -– 56 percent in Florida and 58 percent in Ohio -– say that the economy is either improving now because of Obama’s policies or will improve because of them."

Kornacki continues:

Findings like these undercut the basic premise of Romney’s campaign, that economic anxiety will be enough to prompt swing voters to give up on Obama and use Romney as a vehicle for their protests. For this strategy to have any chance of working, a majority of voters must conclude that Obama’s policies have failed or are failing, and that Romney (or, really, any president not named Obama) would do a better job managing the economy. But this isn’t happening. As Greg Sargent has been documenting, national polling on economic questions has actually swung in Obama’s favor since the Democratic convention, and now we see the same thing happening in these battleground states.

Romney is also dogged by serious image problems. In both Florida and Ohio, just 41 percent of voters have a favorable view of him, while Obama’s score is well over 50 percent in both states. And only 41 percent of voters in Florida and 38 percent in Ohio say that Romney cares about people like them. This reflects the failure of Romney over the summer months and at his convention to repair the battered image with which he emerged from the GOP primaries. It also adds context to a study released earlier this week that shows Romney struggling with white working-class voters outside of the South.

Now, your Speculatroners want to take a moment right here to state, firmly, that we do not subscribe to the notion that the election is a done deal. Important caveats remain wedged in our mind. For instance, as we've written before, we acknowledge that John Kerry managed to make up a significant amount of lost ground during the debates. We also cannot ignore the palpable volatility of the times we are living in, both here at home with a tenuous economy and abroad, where strife in the Middle East continues to garner attention and stoke worry. One of the reasons we conclude that the end-of-September leader tends to hold that lead is simply because the winnowing window of time begins to preclude the possibility of exogenous events changing the "game." But these days, we always seem to be perpetually on the brink of something unexpected happening.

Beyond that, your Speculatroners are just deathly allergic to anything that smells like premature consensus. Especially when it's political reporters and pundits reaching what seems to be that consensus. When a political reporter wishes you a happy birthday, you know ... trust but verify. That said, here are four things to watch for in the coming weeks that will better clue you in as to whether Romney's chances remain good, or if he's a walking cadaver.

1. Simply put, follow the money. The Republican Party isn't just trying to win the White House, you know. It also is trying to maintain a majority in the House. More importantly, the GOP wants to win back control of the Senate -- and if Obama's re-election starts to look inevitable to the GOP, their efforts will shift to the Senate in a hurry. The first debate next week has already been largely imagined as Romney's make-or-break moment -- if he doesn't move the needle with his performance, a lot of campaign cash is going to be redirected downticket.

2. Keep an eye on any weird strategic shifts. Perhaps the most significant statement of this week was Karl Rove saying, “There are 11 different ways to win without Ohio.” Well, there might be two or three -- few involve potentially losing North Carolina, of course -- but recent history doesn't favor presidential candidates who concede the Buckeye State. As Opportunity Ohio president Matt A. Mayer tells the National Review:

I don’t want to be the one who contradicts Karl Rove’s view that Romney can win without Ohio, but he can’t. It isn’t just that historically no Republican has won the presidency without Ohio’s electoral votes that 'proves' that point. It also is the fact that Ohio is a bellwether state, so if a candidate cannot win Ohio -- especially a candidate operating under a very-low-margin-of-error strategy -- the likelihood that that candidate wins enough of the other five to nine toss-up states is not high.

Going back to point one -- "follow the money" -- you should keep in mind, of course, that Rove commands where a crap-ton of Republican campaign money goes.

3. Got friction on the ticket? A goodly portion of the political world was tricked this week into believing that Roger Simon was writing a "news story" when he described Paul Ryan referring to Mitt Romney, as "The Stench." He was actually writing a bit of satire -- not a particularly good piece of satire, it should be noted -- but the whole bit about having finger sandwiches with Peggy Noonan should have tipped readers off. Everyone knows Peggy Noonan eats half-smokes, chugs tallboys, and listens to Black Flag. Come on!

That said, Roger Simon could end up having the last laugh. His column was riffing on a real-live worry that conservatives have -- that a tanking Romney could damage the brand of Kid Serious. The whole "stench" thing came from a quote from former Iowa Republican Party director Craig Robinson, in a quote to The New York Times for a story that was largely concerned with documenting just how desperately Republicans want Romney to take Ryan off the leash. And to what extent is Ryan leashed up now that he's living his life inside the Romney bubble? Word around the campfire is that it's more than the gregarious Ryan would normally prefer.

4. When one's party loses a major national election, the next thing one must do is strive to be a survivor of the circular firing squad that follows. So another sign that Romney is tanking is for conservative partisans seeding the earth for their post-election arguments and blame-shifting.

Perhaps you've heard of "Unskewed Polls," the new conservative invention that holds that Romney is actually out to a significant lead, everywhere based on space algebra? Well, one thing you need to recognize is that this effort is not really about helping Romney get elected. If you're in a close election, you don't tell your base that you secretly have the election in the bag! Fear is always a better motivator than complacency -- recall that when the Obama campaign was concerned about their cash reserves, they sent out the worrisome warning, "We will be outspent." And lo, the Obama campaign made up significant ground.

So you should look at "Unskewed Polls" as less of a strategic effort to get Romney elected, and more of a long-game effort to mount a war against pollsters once the election is over. (They will magically have a case, no matter which way the election turns out: if Obama wins, pollsters are in the tank; if Romney wins, pollsters are terrible and wrong about everything.)

Additionally, look for criticism of whatever phantom forces foisted Romney upon the GOP in the first place, or discussion of "what might have been." If only Rick Santorum has gotten the nomination, we'd have won this going away! (Here, I guess we look past all of the Republican National Committee rule changes, enacted at the convention, that will make small-cash candidacies like Santorum's even more impossible to mount.)

Of course, even if many of these things slowly begin to materialize over the next week, it's not some virtual guarantee that Romney is bound for a loss. Only the voters get to decide that. But what does it tell you about the 2012 race that the candidate who can rightly claim to have restored his party's confidence, re-earned some of its support, and rejuvenated his chances for election after he spent a significant amount of time eating some dumb words he should not have said is Todd Akin, and not Mitt Romney?

As Dylan sang, "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there."

SMALL STAKES: Let's move abruptly to the question of what is squandered by losing an election to what, if any, glory is to be had in winning one. The hoary cliche of every election, as those who are invested heavily in the results, is that it is always "the most important election of our lifetime." It's too bad we don't have elections where it's easy to say, "Ehh, you know, no big deal what happens, everyone go get some sleep," but there you go. When we hear about the election's importance these days, we'll admit to some involuntary eyerolling. And this week, Chris Cillizza made the point a little better than the occasional jerks in our ocular cavity when he wrote, "The 2012 campaign is mediocre. It just is."

In some ways, this campaign fits the times in which it is being run. Gone is the optimism of 2008 -- or even 2000 -- that a single person elected president might just be able to change things in Washington. Taking its place is a widespread belief that things in the country are off on the wrong track and, perhaps even more corrosive, a fading belief that our institutions (Congress, Wall Street, the media) can or will do anything to make things better.

Still, there is a striking disconnect between the bigness of the problems and challenges that face the country both domestically and internationally and the smallness of the campaign to elect the person who will try to lead us through these trying times.

Every once in a while, a post will come across our tumblr dashboard reminding us that, you know, whoever becomes president gets to pick Supreme Court justices, or some such thing, and we're jolted with the rare reminder that yes, the election has actual stakes and consequences. But there's a lot of merit to Cillizza's point, here. For years, the overall economic downturn and its tragic effects -- unemployment, foreclosures, dislocation -- have been presented not as a problem faced by and shared among ordinary Americans, but as tidal forces that solely impact the electoral hopes of otherwise affluent political figures. And by now, that mood has been internalized by this campaign -- which, while full to the brim with talk of the sins of past policies and paeans to a hopeful future -- contains very little reckoning with the here and now.

The race sure seems fascinating at times! The primary season had its share of woolly moments, and the various polls have opened and contracted enough to give the whole occasion a sense of competition. But it's been like watching plate tectonics on a pie crust -- wide enough, but a centimeter deep, and not sustaining enough to make one think too deeply about the state of the nation -- if the horse race is all you're consuming. At this point, we miss the Ron Paul campaign's spirited demonstration of electoral process parkour -- his run through the state conventions at least necessitated a fortifying study of the political process at ground level.

The point is, this race is effectively a contest between well-heeled political brands, not a grand election that's rooted in what's actually going on in America right now. And what is going on in America right now? Well as Chris Lehmann writes in The Baffler, "Data from the IRS shows that the Obama years have achieved almost nothing to remedy the yawning inequalities in the economy":

The top 1 percent of income earners have taken in fully 93 percent of economic gains since the Great Recession, the numbers show. That share outpaces Bush-era figures by a mile; as the economy emerged from the 2001-2 recession, the top 1 percent claimed a lousy 65 percent of the gains that followed.

Naturally, this is not all Obama's doing, Congress played a role -- often an obstructive one -- too. But it's funny to think about Romney being in competition with this, and -- for Pete's sake! -- whining about Obama's stance on "redistribution." Everything is being redistributed in the direction Romney prefers! How will he top it?

At this point, the presidential election is not so much a battle of ideas as much as it is a reputational war, in which every skirmish is solely designed to tear down somebody's "brand." Romney wants voters to think of Obama either as a dangerous threat to the concept of America, or as a nice guy who can't succeed because of the Peter Principle. Obama wants voters to think of Romney as an hypocrite tax-evader or an unfeeling outsourcer of American jobs (forgetting momentarily, perhaps, that he asked outsourcer/tax-evader extraordinaire Jeffrey Immelt to help put America back to work.)

We really needn't get in the weeds and try to evaluate which argument has the greatest merit. The fact is, there is a video of Romney playing right to the role that Team Obama Re-Elect cast him in, and so Obama now has the advantage. If Romney is losing, it's only because he's mired in the very stereotype that he should have set out -- at all cost -- to avoid. He is what we were trained in advance to expect him to be (and Romney, who ran four years ago on his health care reform initiative but only mentions it in fits and starts now, played a hand in that).

Still, as Matt Taibbi writes: "The fact that Barack Obama needed a Himalayan mountain range of cash and some rather extreme last-minute incompetence on Romney's part to pull safely ahead in this race is what really speaks to the brokenness of this system."

ECONOMY SHIFTS, FOR THE GOOD AND BAD: So as it turns out, America, the economy is doing great, and you didn't even know it! This week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics did a "rebenchmarking" of prior employment data that was collected up to March 2012 and found that we had 386,000 other jobs that everyone failed to notice the first time around. Hooray! Have you met one of the people who, as it turns out, was employed all this time? Tell them hello, from us!

As it also turns out, America, the economy is doing terrible, and you didn't even know it! The U.S. Department of Commerce also spent this week going back over previous economic data and found that the "U.S. economy grew at an even more sluggish pace in the 2nd quarter," and subsequently revised gross domestic product figures "downward from 1.7 percent to 1.3 percent."

What does all of this mean? Well, GDP is one of those big macroeconomic factors that political scientists keep a watch on when evaluating the likelihood of incumbent winning an election. The Wonkblog model, for example, uses "three pieces of information that have been found to be particularly predictive," including the incumbent's job approval rating and "economic growth in the year of the election, as measured by the change in gross domestic product during the first three quarters." With a 50 percent approval rating (where Obama is today) and 1.7 percent growth, Obama wins 86.5 percent of the time in that model.

At 1.3 percent growth, however, he drops to ... well ... okay, he only drops to 83 percent. Sorry we got you all worked up there, for a minute!

As for the jobs numbers, the BLS revisions do something significant to the race: they take away a critical Romney talking point. As Justin Wolfers explained: "The BLS benchmark revisions means that there has been a net jobs gain since January '09. Romney can no longer talk about job losses under Obama."

But anemic growth is still what's going on in America.

ELECTORAL PROJECTION: It's time once again for your Speculatroners to end the week with our trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, analysis of prevailing economic trends, pundit speculation and intense consultations with the recently cashiered replacement referees of the National Football League.

Right now, the separation in the polls that began to suggest a more optimistic yield of electoral votes for Obama has continued to prevail. As Charlie Cook writes:

Leading Democratic and Republican pollsters and strategists privately say that the Obama lead is around 4 or 5 points and is neither widening nor narrowing. The convention bounces have dissipated, but Romney’s negatives remain quite high and are not diminishing. In the Gallup three-week super-samples -- almost 10,000 interviews -- the percentage of Democrats saying that they will definitely vote has moved up to the point that it is now virtually tied with Republicans.

And, across the swing state battleground, the shift to Obama remains pronounced, save for one critical state -- Nevada. There, the race has drawn tighter, and the phenomenon that's enabling that could be the localized way the economy is trending. It is not, for example, Ohio -- where unemployment is down, John Kasich makes a bad Romney surrogate, and Obama's reputation for saving the American automobile industry pays huge dividends. Rather, it's a state with "one of the weakest economies in the country -- unemployment continues to hover at 12 percent, nearly 4 points above the national average." It's also a state with Sheldon Adelson.

Still, Nevada isn't much without some other states to go along with it. As long as Obama holds Ohio, he can part with a whole mess of states and get to 270. In fact, assuming he remains ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire, Obama can afford to lose Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, and Florida and -- Ohio in hand -- prevail. This is why it's unclear why Karl Rove believes there are so many ways to win without the Buckeye State. Nevertheless, our map will assume that the optimistic trend for Romney in Nevada will continue.

electoral projection september twenty eight

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