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Mitt Romney's Locked Box

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Al Gore once famously talked a lot about a lockbox for Social Security, and it would have been nice if we had kept one. But though no one has used the phrase in the 12 years since, in this presidential election we have a lockbox as well -- or at least a locked box. It is the one Mitt Romney has to try to campaign in, and unless he figures a way out sometime soon, the drama in this election year may become more about whether Democrats can win back the House than whether Obama will be re-elected. Now don't get me wrong: with the economy not out of the woods and the Super PAC slushfund money still pouring in, with debates coming that could change the dynamics, there is no taking this race for granted, and Democrats should be taking no breathers. But there will come a moment in early October where Karl Rove, the Chamber of Commerce, the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and all those other sleazy big money boys are going to have to decide whether to keep gambling on propping Mitt up or whether he is too trapped in his lockbox to win. If they decide he can't do it, we will see a sudden shift of Super PAC money into trying to save the Republican House.

The box Romney is locked into has been constructed by his own base. His base so thoroughly controls the party and the money and the echo chamber that Romney can't move without stirring up a major internal brushfire. When he tries to appeal to Latino swing voters, he can't talk about immigration, so Latinos are staying overwhelmingly with Obama. When the campaign tried to appeal to women in the Republican convention, they had to mostly focus the appeal on traditional stay at home moms, so now he's losing unmarried women and working women by bigger and bigger numbers. When he tried to sound like a moderate on health care last Sunday, he was forced to pull back within hours. When he says something stupidly macho on foreign policy, he can't afford to soften it or back down, so he has to double down and make himself look even more ridiculous.

It is a huge problem for Romney, as polls are showing. The polling is showing that Romney is running into a ceiling beyond which he can't rise, and he can't change course because his base would go ballistic and blow the whole campaign up. And now we're getting close, and the dynamics in this race are hardening.

In the last three days I have seen seven polls showing the Obama lead at 7, 6, 6, 6, 5, 5, and 4. While there is also one outlier that has the margin at only one, I think it is safe to say that the President has opened up a real lead of about five points, which is the Democracy Corps number that just came out and I consider the most reliable. Given that (a) some of these polls were just finished and it is more than a week out from the convention, and (b) the bad publicity Romney has gotten over yet another not-ready-for-primetime foreign policy gaffe, it seems likely that the lead won't fade much, maybe a point or two, over the next couple of weeks. It also seems likely that, absent some huge new development, at least through the first debate on Oct 3, the basic shape of this race is unlikely to change and Obama will be leading both nationally and in the swing states for a while.

That means certain really critical things. First, what I learned when I was on the targeting committee for the '92 Clinton campaign is that when a presidential campaign is ahead it can force the other side into hard targeting decisions. Even with all of Romney's money, their campaign may soon have to decide whether to cut their losses and stop playing in expensive states like PA and MI where they are several points behind. Once they start narrowing the field like that, it allows a focus of money by the Obama team that will make it hard to lose states where they have a narrow edge like Ohio and CO.

Second, it will mean bet-hedging by the big money guys investing heavily in Romney, which will narrow the money gap considerably. Big corporate interests have their favorite in Mitt Romney, but they sure do want to be able to talk to the Obama people, and in politics, even if it buys nothing else, contributions to fundraisers at least buy you a chance at conversation.

Third, with early voting, it is going to mean the Obama team can lock in a whole lot of votes before any dynamics start to shift. Early voting has already started in NC, and will begin before September closes in NH, MI, VA, and IA. It starts in FL and OH the day before that first debate. If we have a five point lead and Democrats feeling good about Obama, those early votes are a lot easier to put in the bank.

Finally, it means that the stakes for Romney in the first debate are enormous. If he goes into the debate 3-5 points behind and fails to score a big victory in the first debate, you know what is going to happen? Rove and all the big money boys are going to have a conversation that goes something like this: "Romney's probably not going to make it no matter how much we spend, and Obama could have coattails. It's time to switch our money to House races. Mark my words: if Romney loses that first debate, you swing state residents are going to see a lot fewer anti-Obama ads, and a lot more ads in your local House races."

This election is far from over. The swing states are going to stay close; the economy will turn some swing voters away; there are hundreds of millions of dollars of ugly negative ads yet to come; gaffes and subpar debate performances and unforeseen world events could change a lot of things. We Democrats need to work our butts off to make sure we win, and this is a critical period -- we can't let up. But I would also urge my friends in the Democratic organizational, donor, blogger and activist community to be just as prepared for success as we are for tough turns in the presidential race: in this nationalized election, we could have a real shot in October of riding a 5-6 point Obama edge to a majority in the House. (I'm not mentioning the Senate because I feel extremely confident that if Obama is winning by five, we won't have any problem keeping the Senate majority.) If that scenario is within range, we need to be ready to strike while the iron is hot, because Rove and the Koch's and Adelson's and all their friends will be moving their money tootsweet into House races.