As any football coach will tell you, the greatest danger a team faces is overconfidence - especially when they have a lead in the fourth quarter. The recent surge by President Obama in the polls, particularly in the battleground states, is certainly good news, but it also runs the risk that his supporters will become overconfident.
Mitt Romney had a terrible month in September, which revealed many of his weaknesses as a candidate, not to mention the fissures within the Republican party. However, we should remember that re-election campaigns are a referendum on the incumbent and Obama's approval ratings have been below fifty percent for most of the campaign - a real danger zone for incumbents.
There will be another important factor in the final weeks of the campaign - the role of the media. While the Republicans have been accusing the media of a bias against Romney, the media tone may actually tilt against Obama as election day approaches. As Neal Gabler pointed out in a recent op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, the media treats elections like sporting events - they want a close contest. So the narrative may shift in October to make the race seem closer, which may in turn affect the momentum of the campaign, the polls and even the outcome.
With expectations for Romney at a low point, any sign of life from the Romney campaign may be trumpeted by the media as a "comeback." So if Romney scores a couple of points in the debate, the media will tout the revival of his campaign and talk about how the "momentum is shifting." On the other hand, any slight misstep by Obama (and they are bound to be some) will be blown up into a campaign stumble. Since Romney is now trailing, we should also expect his campaign to become more aggressive and vigorous. There will likely be a new "look" to the campaign which the media will seize on as part of the "comeback" narrative.
While all this media buzz may be viewed as so much irrelevant chatter, it could have serious consequences for the election. If the "shifting momentum" narrative gets a lot of play, that could encourage Republican turnout. At the same time, overconfidence by Democrats could depress turnout (even more than the Tea Party's effort to keep Democratic voters from the polls). And the "shifting momentum" story could influence independent voters to go with Romney.
The bottom line is that the election is still close. Even though President Obama does have a chance to break out with a strong victory, the likelihood is that the election will be close and will be decided by voter turnout, particularly in the battleground counties of the battleground states. If those of us who support Obama decide that the election is in the bag, become overconfident and fail to deliver every possible Obama voter, then victory may still be in doubt.