Too many East Coast liberals, battered by Hurricane Sandy this week, are now worried that next week they will be walloped by Hurricane Romney. But there is no such thing: Although political windbags are out in full force, right now they are less threatening than the weather. History will begin the process of forgetting Mitt Romney before clean-up from Sandy is even through.
Why do I believe that Obama supporters do not need to worry? In short, this is the beginning of GOTV (get-out-the-vote) weekend, it's too late for a media narrative to shift the election, and the remaining political variables that will determine Tuesday's precise results indicate Obama is a strong favorite.
Those are my conclusions, but let's consider where the political variables stand and you can make up your own mind. In the eyes of political insiders and the media alike, the following factors still have some influence in the election: 1) turnout; 2) the three presidential debates; 3) coverage of Hurricane Sandy; 4) Ohio; 5) the "new swing states" of Colorado and Virginia; 6) last-minute news and last-minute campaign advertisements.
The more voters who come to the polls, the more President Obama's reelection chances improve. More people who vote Democratic are sporadic voters than people who vote Republican: Generally, Republican voters turn out consistently, and thus the advantage Republicans usually have in midterms (2006 notwithstanding).
But will enough of Obama's voters turn out? Isn't it possible that young people who voted for the President in 2008 are now disaffected and will stay home? The answer is that maybe some will, but not enough to tip the election. The Obama campaign's field operation is formidable, and it is entirely focused on making sure Democratic voters get to the polls. Very few of the campaign phone calls and door knocks have focused on voter persuasion; the game for Democrats has been focused on identifying people who support the president and seeing that they actually vote.
Polling also supports this thesis. The swing-state polls have favored Obama by a significant enough margin to give him a big advantage in the electoral college, and these poll results already have been filtered through "likely voter models." When reputable pollsters come up with results that are outside one another's margin of error, the difference is because various pollsters have differing models to determine which voters will actually turn out. The models always assume that some supporters on both sides will not turn out, but they also assume that more Democrats fails to turn out than Republicans. Even after factoring that in, the swing state polls still favor Obama.
The Presidential Debates
Polls say Obama narrowly won the second two presidential debates, but the first debate matters more than the other two, and Romney won that one big. Unfortunately for Romney, debates matter less than many other factors do in a campaign. Campaign ads and sloganeering -- which are obviously less substantive than debates -- seem to matter more. Ongoing media narratives matter more. The efforts candidates make to energize their party base, usually long before the debates ever happen, matter more. Bottom line, the debates did help Romney, but not enough. He had a "debate bump" in the polls: some of it stuck, but some of it has since been lost. In terms of added support, Romney has gotten what he is going to get from the debates, and it has not been enough.
The competent hurricane response has benefited the president, especially because of the comments of Governor Christie and Mayor Bloomberg. It also dominated the news in the week before the election, and added awkwardness for a Romney campaign that had to be considering several "Hail Mary" options, but was instead forced to more or less sit still and wait for the storm to end, losing time they could ill afford. On top of all this, the extensive coverage of the clip of Romney dismissing FEMA funding at the Republican primary debates has damaged him further.
Obama retains a statistically significant lead in the Ohio polls. Ohioans are in many ways conservative, but it has always been clear that Obama's rescue of GM and Chrysler would help him in Ohio. Most importantly, when you look at the electoral college map, it becomes clear that Obama has a path to 270 even if he loses Ohio -- basically, in that case Obama would have to win either Virginia or Colorado -- but Romney does not have a realistic path to 270 if he loses Ohio. For Romney to lose Ohio yet win the election, he would have to win Pennsylvania, and that's not going to happen. And Ohioans just are not taking very strongly to Gov. Romney.
New Swing States: Colorado and Virginia
If Obama were to lose Ohio but win Virginia, he would still win the election. Romney needs Virginia. I personally think Obama will have an easier time in Ohio than in Virginia, but it's certainly possible that Virginia could be the state to ensure his reelection. If Obama were to lose Ohio and lose Virginia, he would need to win Colorado -- and also to win Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire, all places he is likely to win but not overwhelmingly so. But Romney cannot win without Virginia.
The new swing states of Colorado and Virginia have weaker state parties (both Republican and Democratic) than a state like Ohio does. These states just do not have teams of local activists that have been handling crucial Election Days for years and years in the way that Ohio does. Virginia in particular is a peculiar case: its state elections have no maximum contributions for donors, which means that a donor who wants to give a million dollars to a gubernatorial candidate in Virginia can do that, and consequently would be less likely to give "soft money" to the state party. Thus, the Republican and Democratic Parties of Virginia are poorer than they might otherwise be, and perhaps less sophisticated as a result. Obama may benefit: The ground game in Virginia and Colorado has always been a key part of his campaign strategy. He has built big field operations in both of these states, and his campaign has institutional knowledge from 2008 about how to turn people out in these two battlegrounds.
There is an additional factor at play in Colorado and Virginia. As close as these two states are likely to be on Election Day, that very rare American voter known as a sporadic Republican (who votes Republican, but votes inconsistently) will matter. Romney will need those people to bother to vote. Republicans ordinarily do not have to worry about turning out their voters: Ordinarily they can count on their voters to vote. But these two battlegrounds may be so close this year that Republican inexperience with, say, ensuring that rural Virginia Republicans all cast their votes, could be a liability for them.
Advantage: Obama. The fact that these two states -- onetime Republican redoubts, rich in electoral votes -- are so crucially in play indicates that the reelection fight has been fought on Obama's terms.
Last Minute News, Last Minutes Ads
The thought that a last-minute ad blitz could tilt the election seems to worry many people. The worry is often unfounded. Last-minute ads are not going to sway people who have already made up their minds, and these ads can also look desperate. It's true that a small faction of undecided voters truly do not make up their minds until Election Day -- but for such a small portion of a state's electorate to matter, the polls need to already be a toss-up. Romney can blitz Ohio with more political spending than has ever been seen before, but by now it is still likely to be too little, too late. Obama is in a strong position right now because he is the leader in the battleground-state polls, and on top of that he has had a good news week. Romney's cash advantage does not make up for the fact that he is playing from behind.
If you've read all this but you are still worried, go volunteer and help people get to the polls! Make sure your friends and neighbors all vote too! That's all you can do at this point. Then, if you're an Obama supporter, you can plan on celebrating Tuesday night.