By most polling analysts' accounts, if the Presidential election were held today, President Obama would win by a robust electoral vote margin. Of course, the election isn't being held today and much can happen between now and November 6th to change the dynamics of this pivotal election. But . . .
If Governor Romney does not outperform in the first Presidential debate on October 3rd and post-debate polling does not show any significant movement, watch for the Republican Super PACs to find ways to quickly move away from the Presidential race and invest even more heavily in the swing Senate races. Those Senate results may determine whether a second-term President Obama can advance his priority policy agenda items - including transformative renewable energy development, high-speed passenger rail, judicial appointments, and tax fairness and deficit reduction measures to name a few - or will face a Republican-led Congress with even more hostile right-wing and Tea Party-aligned members.
Here's why the Republican Super PACs' super-focusing on close Senate races, as well some House races, may well happen soon after October 3rd:
First, Karl Rove and other political operatives have to show their billionaire donors that their Super PACs can perform. They have to achieve big results in return for the massive donations to American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth Action and others.
They can try to explain away Mitt Romney as a "flawed candidate with a flawed campaign strategy," but watching their hoped-for control of the Senate slip away will be harder to explain in an election cycle in which 23 Democratic (and Independent-aligned) Senators' seats are up for election, but only 10 Republican seats,. Republicans set high expectations for taking over the Senate, and that will be difficult to walk back.
Second, many of the Senate races are, indeed, very close, and some Republican candidates, such as State Treasurer Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Congressman Rick Berg in North Dakota, really need help. Republicans had long counted on those two Senate races, along with the Missouri race, being in their victory column.
Several other Democratic-incumbent seats that Republicans hoped to switch in Florida, Hawaii, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio and Pennsylvania don't appear very promising today. Some of the difficulty is due to relatively weak or highly ideological candidates, who emerged from the Republican primary process, running against Democratic candidates, who are personally popular and running strong campaigns with issues cutting in their favor.
Republican pickup opportunities in Connecticut (unexpectedly), Montana, Virginia and Wisconsin all appear to be close Senate races. At the same time, however, Republican Senators Dean Heller in Nevada and Scott Brown in Massachusetts are in very close races, and Senator Olympia Snowe's unexpected retirement in Maine appears likely to lead to Republicans losing a current seat, thus making their planned Senate takeover more challenging.
Third, the Senate races often identified as "toss-ups" (see, for example, here) are disproportionately in small-population states: Virginia (#12), Massachusetts (#14), Indiana (#15), Wisconsin (#20), Connecticut (#29), Nevada (#35), Hawaii (#40), Maine (#41), Montana (#44) and North Dakota (#48). None of these are "top 10" states for population, the median population of these states is about 3 million each, and the number of voters is much less. The remaining handful of competitive Senate races are in a couple of larger states already thoroughly saturated with ads (Florida #4 and Ohio #7) and relatively small states (Arizona #16, Missouri #18, Nebraska #36 and New Mexico #38).
Senate elections are often decided by a very small number of voters in these small-population states. For example, Senator Jon Tester won his 2006 Senate race in Montana by 3,562 votes (<0.9% of the voters), and Senator Jim Webb won his 2006 Senate race in Virginia by 9,329 votes (<0.4% of the voters). Turnout will likely be higher in the 2012 Presidential election year, but the bottom line is that a small number of voters in a handful of mostly small-population states may be the margin of difference for Senate majority control.
Campaign dollars go far in these small-state Senate races. The Republican Super PACs' investment of $5 - $10 million more each to help the Republicans Senate candidates in Montana, Nevada and North Dakota can go much further than pouring another $5 - $10 million of anti-Obama ads into each of Michigan, Pennsylvania and other states where Romney has fallen far behind. Many of the smaller states with competitive Senate races are firmly in President Obama's or Governor Romney's camps for the Presidential electoral votes, and they haven't been fully saturated with more than $10 million of Super PAC ads as has already occurred in the Florida, Ohio and Virginia Senate races.
Look at the small-state Senate races that are seriously competitive and the close margins. Targeted ad buys and mailings and effective GOTV in the final campaign month can be keys to victory in a close race. Battling all-out for a Senate majority may be a better investment for the Republican Super PACs than pounding sand by pouring millions of dollars more into ads to help what may be a too-far-behind Romney candidacy.
The Republican Super PACs have millions of dollars to spend, not to save. Watch for their hard-nosed decisions after the first Presidential debate to flood even more money into the competitive small-state Senate races. The laws are murky on how Super PACs can raise and allocate funds. The processes may be opaque, but many millions of more dollars will likely rain on the competitive Senate races. Follow the money flow and watch out to see how and if it makes a difference.