In public, both campaigns are telling you this race is close. Mitt Romney even calls Barack Obama's post-convention bounce a mere "sugar rush." In private, however, Democratic operatives are giddy, and Republican pollsters need a change of pants.
Despite continued anemic job growth, the people have spoken, at least to pollsters. Romney left Tampa with voters less likely to vote for him, the first time in the history of CNN's polling that a presidential candidate has ever been underwater on that question.
Meanwhile, Obama rocketed in the post-convention CNN poll, moving from a 48-48 tie into a 52-46 lead. When you figure in the Libertarian and Green Party nominees, that lead expands to 8 points. This is, to paraphrase Uncle Joe Biden, a BFD. Tweeted ABC analyst and former George W. Bush pollster Matthew Dowd, "A 4 point or 5 point lead in this environment is as significant as a 10 to 12 point lead 15 to 20 years ago."
So, is this race over? Democratic pollsters working in top races across the country say they don't expect Obama to run up the score like he did in 2008, but Romney's window is closing quickly. Most of the pollsters I talked to pointed to the upcoming debates as Romney's last chance.
"Post conventions polling bounces can be temporary, but the fact is Romney's difficult Electoral College math leaves him little margin for error," said Florida-based Democratic pollster Bryan Dooley. "Just as he needs to run the table in swing states, he needs to run the table in the October debates." That's a lot of tables.
Romney pulled his ads in Michigan and Pennsylvania, so he has to win nearly every remaining swing state, and, says Democratic pollster Hankin, "he is behind in all of these states right now. The fat lady is not singing but she is warming up, and outside of Obama bombing the first debate in a way that we have never seen before, Romney is running out of ways to change the trajectory of this thing."
Let's assume that we're now looking at a 52-48 race instead of a 50-50 tie. That marginal difference could "foreshadow a very dire 2012 for Republicans," says Zac McCrary, an Alabama-based pollster.
"If Obama can indeed win by 4-5 points, toss-up Senate races in states like Virginia, Missouri, Massachusetts, Nevada and others probably tilt Democratic. And for every point in the Obama margin, there are probably another 6-8 toss-up House seats that shift into the Democratic column," said McCrary. If that's true, then the House is in play.
Either these math geeks are smoking a lot of pot, or this race could be breaking for Democrats down ballot in a big way. McCrary pointed to two canaries in the coalmine that will let us know which way this race is going: African American voters and Super PAC spending.
McCrary pointed to a recent North Carolina poll showing Obama leading 49-48 but with black voters "only" supporting Obama 87 percent to 8 percent. Typically, he said, African Americans end up going for the Democratic nominee by 90-95 percent on Election Day. That shift would make a huge difference for Obama.
"If you assume they eventually break 95/5 for Obama, that gives Obama another 1.5 points and takes a half-point from Romney. So instead of 49-48, it's closer to 50-47," said McCrary. "Small movement, but certainly could make the difference in a state that Obama won by three-tenths of one percent in 2008."
We won't know for sure until November whether black voters vote for the black president at the same levels they did for Al Gore Jr. and John Kerry, but we'll know in October where the Koch brothers and Karl Rove are putting their money. Just as Romney pulling money out of Michigan and Pennsylvania presages Obama victories there, watch what the Super PACs do with their money.
"If Romney doesn't do any damage in the first debate or gets beaten soundly, don't be shocked if you see a lot of that Republican Super PAC money start heading to the Senate races in an attempt to salvage something out of the election," said McCrary.
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