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A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure: The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For Oct. 12

Jason Linkins   |   October 12, 2012    8:57 AM ET

The reviews from Thursday night's debate are in, and the macro story, essentially, is that Vice President Joe Biden "managed to right the listing USS Barack Obama."

Alternatively, he "stopped the bleeding." Or, if you prefer, Biden "probably gave depressed Democrats an emotional jolt." We at your Speculatron would simply say, to use the cliche, Biden did what he had to do -- stand firm behind the president, offer a rousing and emotive performance, and, yes, show the sort of aggression in opposition that President Barack Obama, for a multitude of reasons, will not be able to.

A chance to cut is a chance to cure, and that is precisely what Biden set out doing in 90 minutes of sparring with his "friend," Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan. Lop, chop, slice -- and the Obama supporters who were left wondering what happened in the first presidential debate were back up off their fainting couches and reaching for their foam fingers.

And Biden brought the full Biden -- he flashed big, sarcastic smiles, jumped into any dead-air that Ryan provided to interrupt and object (deploying a similar technique that we saw former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum use during the primary season's debates), and used grand and emotive melodramatic gestures like he had spent most of his debate prep studying at the feet of François Delsarte.

No one would call Biden's performance especially nuanced -- hell, he essentially dodged moderator Martha Raddatz's first question, on the attacks in Benghazi. But in doing so, he shifted immediately to praising the man at the top of the ticket for lop-chop-slicing off the head of Osama bin Laden. If you recall, last week we remarked that the biggest flaw in Obama's own performance was that he failed to demonstrate that he was a figure of any consequence -- he didn't live up to Biden's famous declaration, "General Motors is alive, and Osama bin Laden is dead." Biden made sure the audience heard about both of those things last night.

Is it little more than cheap theatrics, and melodrama? Absolutely. But it's important to remember that melodrama is the most popular and salable theatrical genre in the history of the modern world. Just ask George Lucas, folks. Or, to be clearer, ask a younger George Lucas -- the one who didn't abandon those melodramatic tropes for a dull rumination on galactic trade deals and the internal politics of the dour Jedi Knights. That's actually a great way of parsing the difference between the Obama/Romney debate and the Biden/Ryan tilt -- Biden brought back a healthy dose of Harrison Ford's cocksure swashbuckling.

Romney surrogates, in the immediate aftermath of Thursday night's debate, made it clear that only Romney is allowed to smile ebulliently, laugh out loud, deploy zingers, and interrupt people. (When Romney does it, it's super-strong and presidential, when Biden does it, it's conduct unbecoming.) They didn't enjoy Biden's performance, not at all. Which is going to be fine with Team Obama Re-Elect, because that was the point. Biden, and only Biden, had the leeway to push boundaries and buttons. Obama can't take it as far as his running mate (in any event, it's not in his nature), but Biden has now opened up a little space for Obama to attack without being thought of as antic.

In the meanwhile, conservatives leading off the discussion with complaints about Biden are making a mistake, in our estimation, because their guy, Ryan, did a perfectly decent job last night. At times, he was even fun! But Ryan could really benefit from his surrogates going out and accentuating the positive Friday. Some of the post-debate insta-polls give Ryan a slight edge -- his allies need to go out and talk him up, and manifest some enthusiasm over him, so that those wins take on greater significance.

Right now, their best efforts are accomplishing nothing more than pushing Ryan's presence down the memory hole. Of particular note Friday, was Romney surrogate Karl Rove, who spent time on Fox News spiraling through all of the zingers that Ryan didn't use. Did you know that Ryan passed on bringing up the "middle class has been buried" line? It was nice of Karl Rove to remind everyone of that.

To put all the carping about Biden's comportment in proper context, we'll borrow from Dave Weigel: "On Thursday morning, Rep. Paul Ryan was the guy who bow-hunted for fun and posed for pictures of his P90X workout. On Thursday night, he had been unfairly bullied by an old guy."

There you have it, and the Obama campaign can more than live with it. In fact, if Obama's team of flacks are smart -- and that's an open question! -- they'll hit the Sunday shows characterizing it all as, "Biden really got under Ryan's skin." They'll connect that with Ryan's flailing, "I-don't-have-time-to-do-the-math" appearance on Fox News Sunday and his "testy" exchange with a Flint, Mich., reporter, and make the case that Ryan is cracking under the kliegs, the Golden Boy can't hack it, the GOP's "whiz kid" is more like the "Wiz" from Seinfeld:

Now that the one-and-done battle of veeps is concluded, the narrative moves, inexorably forward. The important thing to remember, here, is that all Biden could have done last night was reenergize the Democratic base, and blunt the sinking momentum that damaged the president's standing last week. He was never in the position, however, to get momentum trending in the other direction. That's up to Obama now, and while the media loves a comeback narrative, the expectations on Obama will be magnified significantly. No, he won't be able to glide over the top as often as his running mate. And the town hall format of the next debate, which requires the candidates to do more engaging with citizens than with each other, won't provide the sort of intimate setting where small shows of aggression look large.

But what Biden demonstrated is that having a passion for your performance really matters, and it's passion that Obama will have to demonstrate. If the same Obama, who hates the artificiality of debates, shows up, he'll falter. He needs to find some of Biden's pure "love of the game." Otherwise, he'll join Ryan in being easily eclipsed. Ryan can survive that. Obama won't.

THE RADDATZ RESTORATION: Here's an Iron Law of Debate Victors: If you want to know who lost the debate, all you need to do is find which candidate's surrogates and allies are out in the next 24 hours, whining about the debate moderator.

In the first presidential debate, moderator Jim Lehrer took the lion's share of criticism from Democratic partisans, who very cheaply attempted to conflate the problems with the debate itself with the problems in President Obama's performance. But the two matters needed to be distinguished. Lehrer opted to remove a lot of the traditional debate structure, in the belief that having more discussion on a smaller number of questions would make for a better exchange of ideas. This was clearly incorrect -- what it mostly did is encourage a crap-ton of blathering that so obscured the two candidates' contrasts that Lehrer was constantly having to ask after them: "Can the two of you agree that the voters have a choice?" Lehrer begged, "A clear choice between the two of you on Medicare?" Huh, what? Remind me what is going on here!

But for all Lehrer's flaws, he had nothing at all to do with Obama sucking canal water for 90 minutes. That, Obama did all on his own. It was convenient for his surrogates to suggest that Lehrer ran their guy off the rails, but it was patently unfair. Romney allies mocked the attempts appropriately.

But they must have the memories of mayflies, because after last night's debate, they've come out bleating with the same whiny insecurities. As Jack Mirkinson reported:

Raddatz asked hawkish questions about Iran and pushed Biden repeatedly on whether there had been a "failure" of intelligence in Libya — all things conservatives could enjoy. He seemed to lose patience with her more than Ryan did, at one point sharply telling her to "be straight" with him about Afghanistan. Her take on Social Security and Medicare — she said both were "going broke" — would likely make liberal economists grind their teeth. Still, conservatives howled that she let the extremely animated vice president run roughshod over Ryan.

"Wow, Martha Raddatz really is in Obama's camp it seems," blogger and pundit Erick Erickson wrote. "Biden SHOULD thank Martha," Laura Ingraham tweeted at the end of the debate. "Martha Raddatz is the worst moderator," Sean Hannity tweeted. "Maybe next time @PaulRyanVP should invite her to his wedding." That was a reference to the fact that President Obama attended Raddatz's wedding in 1991 to Julius Genachowski, the current head of the FCC and a fellow student of Obama's at Harvard. Raddatz divorced Genachowski in 1997, and the Romney-Ryan campaign said it had no concerns about her impartiality.

This is all just more time wasted doing anything other than talking up Ryan, and outside of the already converted, it's not a message that's going to play with anyone who's remotely persuadable.

Now, this is not to say that there isn't some constructive criticism to offer Raddatz. Her framing of Social Security and Medicare as "going broke" is incorrect and doesn't even require a "liberal economist" to get out of bed to critique it. The very conflation of the two programs, in this context, remains a perennial error of media professionals. Medicare is the more difficult nut to crack, because it features a complicated array of inputs and outputs, there's rising longevity in the population, and the overall cost of health care is escalating. But it's not going broke -- in fact, the Obama administration added eight years of solvency to the system (which Romney wants to take away).

Social Security, on the other hand, is neither "going broke" nor a complicated fix -- raise or remove the income caps on contribution, and you provide solvency. It's a little system we like to call the "Make Alex Rodriguez Pay More Social Security (And Make The New York Yankees Match) Plan," and it's elegant in its simplicity. All we really need to preserve Social Security is some of those brave-talkin' legislators who always pound on and on about needing to make "the tough choice" to show up for work one day and prove they are what they say they are.

(The added benefit of my plan for baseball fans is that it would provide incentives to keep player salaries from reaching such bonkers heights. Why pay a man half-a-billion to do the same job as Raul Ibañez, after all? Well, if that's what you want to do, you can bloody well do more to take care of your aging fan base.)

Meanwhile, nobody ever calls the Pentagon "going broke," but the military doesn't run on wishes anymore than Social Security does. Yet, we have Raddatz talking about angsty generals not getting one more "fighting season." Got revenue?

We aren't going to harp too hard on this. (But hey, David Roberts will.) We thought Raddatz was firm and kept the conversation lively without becoming last week's dull mess, and these inconsistencies really only demonstrate that she's spent significantly more time talking to generals and studying foreign policy than she has poring over the vagaries of the domestic discretionary budget. All of which suggests, as we've suggested elsewhere, that she would have best been given the moderator position at the final presidential debate on foreign policy than this vice presidential grab-bag. Imagine Raddatz, with more time and leeway, asking her Libya questions of Obama and Romney. Do you think Republicans would be castigating her the next day? Hell, no.

WHAT ROMNEY IS DOING TO WIN: It's become a well-cemented piece of conventional wisdom that Romney's recent, successful shift to a more favorable standing in the polls stems entirely from the fact that Obama took the stage in Denver and proceeded to unleash a steady stream of Ambien-farts all over the debate stage. It seems that when the story of this election is written, that's how this past week will be characterized. Hell, we did our part in ensuring it, so, sorry everybody.

So let's take a minute just to remember that Romney has a staff of strategists, and they actually have a plan of their own, and it's not 100 percent dependent on Obama making a bunch of unforced errors and soporific debate performances. Here's what's working for him:

Keeping it vague. For the better part of the year, the Romney campaign has made an extraordinary effort to keep his plans and policies as obscure as possible. This has, at times, driven Romney's nominal allies in the conservative punditocracy to distraction, and prompted them to rain down criticism on his campaign. (More on that in a minute.) We have contended throughout that the Romney campaign has done this by design, the point being to deny Team Obama Re-Elect a fixed target to train their own fire.

There have been times that pursuing this strategy has caused the Romney campaign to take on water -- every time it is forced to gloss over the Tax Policy Center's obvious problem with its tax plan (even with the most generous assumptions, it requires a big middle-class tax hike to work), it hurts. But over the long haul, it seems to be working, and there is even some political science to back up the theory. As Dylan Matthews reported: "The political scientists Michael Tomz and Robert van Houweling, of Stanford and Berkeley respectively, have found that vagueness is actually an asset for political candidates."

Tomz and van Houweling conducted an experiment where they asked 1,001 people for their views on government services. The respondents were given seven choices: increase services by a large, medium, or small amount; decrease services by a large, medium, or small amount; or keep them at the current level.

They were then asked to choose between four pairs of candidates; half were given the candidates’ parties, and the other half weren’t. The two pairs included a specific candidate, who took one of the seven specific positions on government services (increase/decrease, large/medium/small), and a vague candidate, who supported a range of positions like “increase services” (without specifying by how much) or “increase or decrease services a small amount or do nothing.”

The last two pairs were the same as the first two, but with the vague candidate’s position made more precise.

The results? "They found that ambiguity helps across the board. It increases support by members of one’s own party by 5.3 percentage points. No statistically significant change was found in support from independents or members of the other party; indeed, the midpoints were a 1.7 point bounce from independents and no change among members of the other party."

Lie and lie again. Romney fans probably won't appreciate us framing it like this, but the satirists at the Onion basically nailed it in their piece, "Romney Proudly Explains How He's Turned Campaign Around."

“I’m lying a lot more, and my lies are far more egregious than they’ve ever been,” a smiling Romney told reporters while sitting in the back of his campaign bus, adding that when faced with a choice to either lie or tell the truth, he will more than likely lie. “It’s a strategy that works because when I lie, I’m essentially telling people what they want to hear, and people really like hearing things they want to hear. Even if they sort of know that nothing I’m saying is true.”

“It’s a freeing strategy, really, because I don’t have to worry about facts or being accurate or having any concrete positions of any kind,” Romney added.

Now, we'll remind you that this is from a satire publication, so don't go quoting that and putting it on your Facebook wall as if it was something Romney really said, or everyone is going to point and laugh at you. That said, if Romney wanted to say this, he'd probably be talking about a strategy he's riding to success. Over at Reuters, Jack Shafer contends, "The pervasiveness of campaign lies tells us something we’d rather not acknowledge, at least not publicly: On many issues, voters prefer lies to the truth."

As Shafer points out, one of the worst things you can do as a candidate, in fact, is vow to be truthful:

The one presidential candidate in recent memory to win the White House posing as a truth teller was Jimmy Carter, who famously promised early in his campaign: “I’ll never tell a lie” and “I’ll never knowingly make a misstatement of fact” as president. These promises drew instant fire from the press, most notably Steven Brill, who flayed him in a March 1976 Harper’s piece titled “Jimmy Carter’s Pathetic Lies” (subscription required). Carter, who told no fewer lies than the average candidate, paid a political price for his promise, as everyone turned up their radar. “By saying that he would never tell a lie, Carter decided for himself that that’s going to be his standard,” said Alan Baron, George McGovern’s press secretary. “Well, fine, let’s hold him to it.” As soon as they could, voters replaced the non-lying liar with Ronald Reagan, a man so smooth even he didn’t know when he was lying.

As for Romney, Shafer says:

Voters especially don’t mind if their presidential candidate tells a lie that appears to repudiate the party’s most sacred principles. For instance, in the first of the 2012 presidential debates, Mitt Romney claimed to be for economic regulation. “Regulation is essential. You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation,” said Romney. Few Romney supporters flinched at their man’s endorsement of government intervention into business, because they knew he knew his lie was designed to make himself look palatable to easily duped Democrats and independents. If they’ve hung with him this long, Romney supporters know that his presidential campaign has been one long lie – first to convince the Republican Party that he was an honest conservative and now to convince voters in the general election that he’s a devoted moderate.

Just as vagueness does, lying helps to keep your opponent from hitting a stationary target. Let's recall that Obama was apparently completely taken aback at the debate when Romney started advocating an entirely different set of policy proposals than the ones he'd previously been promoting. This was not Obama making an unforced error. This was Romney going on offense and winning.

Once your allies stop criticizing you, you get a bounce: Like we said, Romney's "keep it vague" strategy ended up drawing a lot of criticism from those who would normally have been aligned with him. If only they knew that letting all that slide would have been a huge help.

There's a powerful argument to be made that the one thing Romney needed to do was just show up at the first debate. We've discussed previously the way that getting out on stage with an incumbent president provides a sort of "leveling effect," which helps to ease voters into the notion that the challenger is a credible chief executive.

But let's look at Romney's debate performance in a new way. Up until he took that stage, concerned conservatives saw The Romney Unit as an unknown piece of hardware that left everyone uncertain about how it would perform once it was matched up with Obama. Romney's debate performance, more than anything else, was what allowed him to pass a critical "proof of concept" test. Once he did so, that carping and backseat driving that got Ann Romney all heated up went away. And the big poll bounce followed.

The 4th Estate Project actually did a study of the effects of conservative complaints about the Romney campaign and found a compelling correlation with Romney's poll numbers. Per Michael Howe, the 4th Estate Project’s chief technology officer, "Our data suggests that Republican negative statements within the Media toward Republican candidates moves public sentiment, as measured by public opinion polling, much more than negative statements toward Republican candidates generated by Democrats. In other words, media consumers would seem to have a built-in sensor for ignoring the negative statements that are generated across political lines, but that when members of the same party are negative or critical of each other, this becomes something of note to swing voters.”

It has even helpfully provided an infographic to make this clear:

simple republican math

Romney's ability to get conservatives off his back could be the real game-changing product of his debate performance, and critically, it's not one of the dynamics of the race that Obama is likely to be able to change. You'd think that Romney's sudden shift to a more moderate set of stances might only aggravate conservatives, but so far you'd be wrong. The GOP punditocracy has noticed it, but it isn't complaining about it. All that matters is what works and right now, Romney is working just fine.

It does raise an interesting question however -- does it work both ways? Obama's own poll numbers started tanking in the wake of the Denver debate, amid a torrent of similar criticism and caterwauling from his pundit-supporters. Of course, you can hardly fault them -- Obama had objectively given those pundits a flop debate performance that only the most devoted flack could spin out into something complimentary.

But some of the reaction was terrifically outsized, all the same -- Chris Matthews' vine-ripened agita and Andrew Sullivan's near-suicidal LiveJournal entry that somehow got upvoted onto the Daily Beast come to mind as two examples of criticism that went stunningly over the top, perhaps to Obama's overall detriment. When all is said and done, some of the complainants may come to regret that they didn't just keep calm and carry on.

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VP Debate 2012: What To Watch For

Jason Linkins   |   October 11, 2012   12:35 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Thursday night, all of your political reporters and merry meme-makers will be focusing their energy and attention on the second of the Commission on Presidential Debates' four debates, only this one will be the one without the "presidential" part. That's right, we got vice presidential contenders up in this piece -- current Veep Joe Biden and V.P. hopeful Rep. Paul Ryan.

If you cast your mind back through the history of vice presidential debates, you probably remember the key moments. Lloyd Bentsen getting in a good burn on Dan Quayle (that every hack politico has attempted to recreate, pathetically). John Edwards managing to be the creepiest guy in a room that contained Dick Cheney (prophetic, now that we think about it). Adm. James Stockdale trying to charm the audience by pretending to have no coping skills. What we're trying to say, is that typically, the battle of veeps is a low-stakes affair.

Not so this time, apparently:

Vice presidential debates typically matter as much as vice presidential picks -- which is to say not a lot -- but a convergence of factors is raising the stakes on this week’s faceoff between Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden.

As Dan Amira points out, every single vice presidential debate that ever was has been sold as the one that really matters, but this year, the people who always say that are saying it even louder and more emphatically than ever. Why? Because after last week's debate, in which Barack Obama -- according to Andrew Sullivan, anyway -- crapped the bed as Mitt Romney become the dazzling, Good Will Hunting of radically altering his own policy positions, this battle of wits is being billed as the must-have turning point for Democrats if they hope to restore some of their ticket's lost standing.

Which means: everything comes down to Joe Biden, just as Nostradamus said it would.

THE VENUE AND TOPIC AREA: The vice presidential debate will take place at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College in Danville, Ky. -- the same college where Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney battled in what the debate organizers have called "The Thrill In The Ville." There, Biden and Ryan will face a grab bag of questions on both foreign and domestic policy. It's wide open, but hopefully we can, at the very least, nip this "Big Bird" stuff in the bud.

THE MODERATOR: Running the show this evening will be ABC News' Martha Raddatz, in her first ever debate moderation gig at this level of competition. (As Michael Calderone reported, Raddatz "once moderated a Ted Kennedy debate during her Boston reporting days.") Her lack of moderation experience, however, is more than made up for in her breadth of knowledge and the crisp intelligence she's displayed as ABC News' chief foreign correspondent -- a position she's had since November of 2008. Frankly, it can be argued that having walked the foreign policy beat for the entirety of the past four years, she might have been a better fit for the all-foreign policy presidential debate on Oct. 22.

Raddatz has come under fire -- well, that's too strong a term ... let's just say she was briefly the subject of a session of frantic Daily Caller arm-waving, accusing her in advance of "media bias." However, as Erik Wemple pointed out, the Daily Caller didn't actually mine any juicy nuggets of "bias" from her body of work as a journalist. Rather, it has alleged this all from the fact that Barack Obama was a guest of her ex-husband's at her first wedding, and that he may have even danced. Which is a savage indictment, of ... something. Anyway, we are pretty sure Raddatz isn't sweating this.

THE DEBATE FORMAT: Seeing as how last week's grand experiment of only asking six questions and allowing the candidates to blather on and on unmoderated ended up being something of a bust, you'll be glad to know that the vice presidential debate is a return to the typical 90-minute structure -- nine questions, two-minute responses, and the remainder of the 10 minutes being given over as discussion time. But with so many domestic policy topics left untouched in the first presidential debate, and foreign policy encroaching at the veep debate, chances are viewers are going to be left wanting more.

THE DEBATERS: Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, as debate opponents, offer some interesting points of comparison and contrast. Both of these guys are born gabbers -- they live to talk shop, and they love to converse with just about anyone who'll listen. Both are veterans of the legislature, and so you're likely to see a sort of fellowship between the two men that isn't going to manifest itself during the debates between Obama and Romney. Biden and Ryan are essentially members of the same fraternity, and they'll likely demonstrate a baseline level of respect for one another. (Were it not for the election, frankly, you can easily imagine these two getting along with one another.)

But one of the interesting things about these two men in particular going into a debate, is that each tends to buck his party's preferred manner of talking to Americans. Most Democrats shy away from using stark, moral tones in their case-making, but Biden's not one of them -- when he discusses issues, he invests them with emotion, sometimes at the expense of nuance. Ryan, on the other hand, prefers a long wonky stroll in the weeds, to an emotional appeal. Or at least he used to -- before his last Fox News Sunday appearance, we never imagined Ryan wouldn't make time to talk math, but chances are, the Romney campaign has got him on a leash.

THE PRE-GAME: Which reminds us -- the popular conventional wisdom holds that it's Biden that should be kept on a leash, because, after all, he is Gaffe Gafferson, the mayor of Gaffe Town, where they manufacture gaffer tape, right? Who can forget that time Biden went off the reservation and caused Obama to have to come out in favor of marriage equality ahead of his strictly calibrated schedule? That was a tragic gaffe, according to clueless Beltway reporters. All of which is to say that the expectations, as far as Biden is concerned, could not possibly be lower, because by now, everyone in the media treats a successful Biden public appearance as if it were an encounter with the God particle.

But beyond expectations, there are also needs. And seeing as how last week's setback in the first debate turned Obama's supporters into the characters from the "Oresteia" within 48 hours, they will want Biden to do enough to restore their faith in the ticket. The temptation, of course, in debating Ryan, is to prosecute the case against his own unpopular policy prescriptives. But Biden will need to make his running mate's case in the debate, and Romney has, critically, not entirely signed onto Ryan's roadmap. If Biden tries to go in for the kill on Ryan, he could ultimately leave Romney unscathed.

Ryan's challenge is a little different. He's already won over the conservative base and is the darling of the Beltway media -- a pretty rare combination of merit badges. Now, he has to get a passing grade from middle-America and independent voters. To do that, he'll want to stick to the script, and avoid being -- to use Charles Pierce's famous descriptor -- the "Zombie-Eyed Granny Starver" that brought a torrent of boos the last time he delivered a speech at the AARP. But if Biden isn't pressing that case, no problem, right? Well, it all depends on how long Ryan gets to talking -- as Ana Marie Cox points out, "If Biden does exactly what Obama did in the last debate, and just lets Ryan motor on, the chances are all the greater that Ryan will say what he actually believes -– so much of which is heroically unpopular with American voters -– and with Mitt Romney."

WHAT'S AT STAKE: We take pride in our ability to be able to stick our finger in the wind and get a sense of where the political media would dearly love to bend the 2012 narrative next. And we get the sense that given half a chance, everyone would love to write the "Biden rights the listing ship" story. (Biden, having yoked Obama to his will on marriage equality, sets the stage for a sequel.) If Biden re-energizes Democrats, without going overboard, he could bring everyone back off the ledge.

If that doesn't seem that fair to Ryan, think on this: Even if he turns in the debate performance of his life, parries all thrusts, and shreds all arguments, all anyone will give him credit for is beating the walking gaffe machine. But if there isn't a sweet reward waiting for Ryan, the good news is that Biden's successes could have a short shelf-life -- and Obama will have to match his running mate's performance when he takes Romney on for their debate next Tuesday. So the downside for Ryan is quite small -- so long as he sticks to the script and avoids reminding everyone of his own unpopular policy prerogatives.

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Suffolk Pulls Polling From Florida And Virginia Because Reasons, Shut Up!

Jason Linkins   |   October 10, 2012   12:18 PM ET

In the last weeks of the 2012 presidential election, there is going to be an ever-intensifying look at the polling numbers coming out of the battleground states. For most people, that is. For the good people at Suffolk University's polling operation however, covering the historically important swing states of Florida and Virginia is just a hot bag of meh, and so they're not going to do it anymore. Sorry, everyone.

The Hill's Jonathan Easley has the story:

Suffolk University pollster David Paleologos, whose polls are aggregated into mainstream averages to show where the presidential race stands in the swing states, said he’s finished polling in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia because President Obama has no shot of winning those states.

“I think in places like North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, we’ve already painted those red, we’re not polling any of those states again,” Paleologos said Tuesday night on Fox’s "The O’Reilly Factor." “We’re focusing on the remaining states.”

Leaving aside North Carolina, which is a pretty big stretch for the Obama campaign to win in the current electoral environment, it doesn't make much sense to write off Florida and Virginia. But what informs Suffolk's decision? Oh, I see here that Easley reports that the "latest Suffolk poll in Florida, taken before last week’s debate, showed Obama ahead 46 percent to 43 among likely voters" and "late last month Suffolk found Obama with a 2-point advantage" in Virginia. So that definitely suggests no more polling needs to be done.

The latest polls conducted in Florida, by Rasmussen and We Ask America, give Romney a two and three point lead, respectively. In Virginia, the latest poll, from Public Policy Polling, gives Obama a three point lead. At the moment, the HuffPost Pollster poll averages in Florida and Virginia show Romney surging to slight leads in those states -- by 1.2 percent and 0.6 percent respectively. If Suffolk has polling numbers that suggest Romney is achieving some significant amount of escape velocity, those numbers would be incredibly useful to everyone who conducts poll averages. Since Suffolk isn't going to provide those numbers, the races in Florida and Virginia will be captured, in the rolling averages, as much closer than Suffolk insists that they are.

Asked for a comment on what's going on with Suffolk, HuffPost Pollster's Emily Swanson gave me a series of perplexed looks and eyerolls.

UPDATE, 1:29pm; As if on cue, Tampa Bay Times political reporter Adam Smith tweets: "UNF Fla poll: Obama 49, Romney 45."

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Pew Poll Prompts Mad Panic From Obama Supporters

Jason Linkins   |   October 9, 2012    2:41 PM ET

Now that we've entered the home stretch of this presidential campaign, we're starting to see what happens to high-information political partisans after they've spent many months staring at this neon god we've constructed and named "The 2012 Horse Race": Everyone starts to slowly, but readily, tip into derangement.

A few weeks ago, when President Barack Obama was enjoying a modest bounce in the polls, activists on the right developed a whole new space algebra and started "unskewing" the polls and insisting that Mitt Romney was actually the one enjoying the modest bounce. Last week, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics' jobs report came out, reporting a modest downtick in misery, the same crew led a lycanthropic rage-parade against the agency, accusing it of "cooking the books."

That sh*t was, as the kids say these days, "cray," but at the same time, there was almost something admirable about the way the conservative tribe manifested a will to power so pure and so intense that it was briefly able to slip the surly bonds of objective reality. This was communitarian discomposure at its finest, warlike in its dubiety. In the face of slightly bad news, the right didn't so much suspend their disbelief as much as they waterboarded it into submission.

Since then, however, there has been a presidential debate, in which Romney prevailed as the more confident debater, and this has tipped the president's most ardent supporters into their own sense of disarray. It is not a little bit weird. People talk about the "expectations game" going into these presidential debates, but I am forced to conclude that the president's biggest fans fully expected Obama -- the same guy who spent a few months being pretty sure he could win Sen. Chuck Grassley's support for health care reform with the right mix of politesse and compromise -- to go to the debate and serve Mitt Romney his own balls on a plate with fingerling potatoes and a squash puree.

That obviously didn't happen. Romney prevailed against a performance from Obama that's been universally rated somewhere between "too polite" and "outright lifeless," and has in recent days experienced a resurgence of his own in the polls. This all culminated Monday when Pew Research released its round of post-debate numbers and found that Romney had taken a four-point lead nationally among likely voters. And so it was the left's turn to give into derangement and -- as anyone who has watched politics for more than a week knows is typical of them -- they passed on the chance to manifest the same reality-altering will to power for their preferred reaction, pure animal panic.

In the immediate aftermath of the debate, the seeds necessary to grow organic, free-range woe were quickly sown by people such as Kevin Baker of Harper's, who saw Obama's performance as a de facto admission that the president just wanted to tank the election and bail. On Thursday, Baker wrote:

Obama had a perfect opportunity to impose his own agenda on last night's debate. He could and should have made the entire evening a debate on Romney's shocking contention that nearly half the country is made up of "victims and dependents," mooching off the rest of us simply because they are not currently paying federal income taxes.

...

Instead, Obama signaled that he wants out. His diehard supporters are already trying to wave away this weirdly awful, unengaged performance as just his latest turn of Zen mastery, but that dog won't hunt. They should steel themselves for more shocking displays of indifference over the next month on the part of this strangely diffident individual. It's quite possible that he means what he says, and he really can't wait to become an ex-president.

Who can deny that all of the muscular effort that Obama has made all year campaigning and fundraising and shoring up the base with a number of executive orders and pouncing on every opportunity to define Mitt Romney as a clueless plutocrat was definitely leading up to an intentionally thrown debate performance that would ensure the end of his own presidential tenure. My God, Obama must have been terribly despondent after his convention went so swimmingly! If anything, Baker makes too much sense here.

But nothing could have prepared America for the reaction that the Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan had Monday, when Pew Research released its numbers. By that point, everyone in the world should have been fully expecting Romney's success to manifest itself favorably in the polling results. Yet for Sullivan -- evidently the only British person to have not seen a "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster -- Pew's results were nothing less than the distant early warning of the pure, earth-shattering doom and demise to come. In his piece, not at all hyperbolically titled "Did Obama Just Throw the Election Away?" Sullivan freaks out thusly:

The Pew poll is devastating, just devastating. Before the debate, Obama had a 51-43 lead; now, Romney has a 49-45 lead. That's a simply unprecedented reversal for a candidate in October. Before Obama had leads on every policy issue and personal characteristic; now Romney leads in almost all of them. Obama's performance gave Romney a 12 point swing! I repeat: a 12 point swing.

Romney's favorables are above Obama's now. Yes, you read that right. Romney's favorables are higher than Obama's right now. That gender gap that was Obama's firewall? Over in one night.

...

Seriously: has that kind of swing ever happened this late in a campaign? Has any candidate lost 18 points among women voters in one night ever? And we are told that when Obama left the stage that night, he was feeling good. That's terrifying. On every single issue, Obama has instantly plummeted into near-oblivion.

The rest of Sullivan's dispatch was dictated to loved ones through the walls of his panic room, apparently. He says that he is "trying to rally some morale," but Obama threw "away almost every single advantage he had with voters."

Sullivan asks, "How do you erase that imprinted first image from public consciousness: a president incapable of making a single argument or even a halfway decent closing statement?" I would have thought that a reasonable answer to that question would be something like, "Do better in the next two debates," but I am probably thinking too clear-headedly. I mean, when I read about Obama telling a supporter that his campaign was "making him do his homework," I read that as a wry joke about the dull process of campaigning. Sullivan, on the other hand, reads it sincerely and concludes that Obama is literally refusing "to take a core campaign responsibility seriously."

Here's Sullivan on Sept. 27: "Obama Moves In For The Kill." That was written about a campaign ad the president's campaign released -- you know, as a part of their larger effort to eventually stop "taking core campaign responsibilities seriously."

"I've never seen a candidate self-destruct for no external reason this late in a campaign before," Sullivan now writes, "[Al] Gore was better in his first debate -- and he threw a solid lead into the trash that night." So he's never seen a candidate self-destruct, except for that time 12 years ago when a candidate self-destructed. O-kay!

Even Sullivan's solutions are slightly unkempt in their rationale:

If [Obama] now came out and said he supports Simpson-Bowles in its entirety, it would look desperate, but now that Romney has junked every proposal he ever told his base, and we're in mid-October, it's Obama's only chance on the economy.

Jeezy-creezy, Simpson-Bowles! That will solve everything. Put some Simpson-Bowles on your skin rash and call me in the morning! More realistically, of course, Obama will win all of the District of Columbia's electoral votes and, in all likelihood, outperform Romney in the Maryland and Virginia ring suburbs of the nation's capital, and so that essentially covers the part of America where the people who authentically believe Simpson-Bowles is the be-all and end-all of economic policy actually reside.

Look, Obama's September bounce actually happened and Romney's October comeback is real. But fundamentals matter, and as Ken Layne points out Tuesday, Andrew Sullivan is not recognized by political science as an election-year fundamental: "Andrew Sullivan is not a useful metric for measuring the opinions, stances or engagement of American voters slowly waking to the reality of a presidential election next month."

Here are the fundamentals of the election. Obama is the incumbent, but he cannot fully manifest the advantages of incumbency because the economy is terrible. If the economy were better, he'd be doing better. But it's not, so he won't. Romney, if he were better at running for president, might have led in the polls for a longer period of time this year. But he's not particularly good at running for president, so he hasn't. All signs point to the fact that we are going to have the same tight-as-a-tick election that just about everyone of sound mind thought we'd have from jump.

There is, perhaps, some acknowledgement of this from Sullivan, who is slightly more chilled out on Tuesday: "Look: there's time. I've sat through a few very very flat Obama performances in my time as well. He is often best when up against the wall."

Someday, I hope people take a moment and consider what a luxury it is to be in a full-tilt panic over the fate of a well-liked, permanently affluent political celebrity at a time when millions of Americans are unemployed and our soldiers are bogged down in a war that began when some of them were just 8 years old.

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Barack Obama Performs His Disappearing Act: The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For October 5

Jason Linkins   |   October 5, 2012    5:21 PM ET

Well, last week, your Speculatroners couldn't help but notice that the political media had apparently all had a brunch, or something, at which it was pretty much decided that the race for the White House was pretty much over. We could sort of understand why -- poll numbers were very rosy for Obama and the history of October comebacks in presidential politics is not exactly a rich one.

But we tried to warn everyone about the dangers of premature consensus. And we cautioned that one of history's near-comeback stories was John Kerry -- who used his first debate with former President George W. Bush as a springboard to get back into a race he was losing badly, and tighten the race beyond what anyone would have expected.

And now, here we are, seven days later. You know, here at the 2012 Speculatron, we don't try to be prophetic, but we're feeling pretty good about the way we called this week. We are at the very least, feeling better than the Obama campaign is right now -- saddled with the distinction of having badly whiffed at its first at-bat with Mitt Romney. The Romney campaign will now head into Sunday with a pair of victories under its belt -- one over its opponent, and one over its Republican critics. We'll get to the latter victory in a moment. First, let's dig in on the debate win.

The latter-day historical trend in presidential debates that feature an incumbent is that the challengers tend to win the opening outing -- the arguable exception being former President Bill Clinton, who went into his debates with a strong, simple message ("Let's build a bridge to the 21st century.") and a really bad debate opponent (Bob Dole, who tellingly went on to pitch Viagra on the TV). In our debate preview, we made note of one baked-in advantage that challengers have going for them: the "leveling effect." There's nothing that cuts through the abstractions of a political horse race like finally seeing the competitors, standing on the same stage as equals.

Wednesday night's debate was obviously not the zinger-fest we'd been promised. And it was remarkably free of attacks to the jugular. Instead, it was weedy, wonky, talky and dull. This was a letdown for anyone who came in, juiced on the montages of exciting debate moments from campaigns past that the cable networks were broadcasting. For Romney, however, wonky and boring was an ideal environment, as his major goal was just presenting himself, at long last, like a credible presidential candidate. That doesn't seem like a high hurdle. It's not. But it's the first hurdle, and if you're Romney -- walking into the room as the gaffe-prone plutocrat -- clearing it helps to put all those errors from the past three months in the rear-view mirror.

Ben Smith has gotten (rightly) taken to task for filing his take on the matter before the debate was half over, but his points about what Romney did nevertheless stand as an accurate assessment. Smith writes that Romney "needed to prove tonight that he could stand on stage with President Barack Obama as an equal and a plausible president of the United States," and that he accomplished that mission:

But Romney's core success was that he won by not losing: He has barely weathered a campaign that reduced him to a smaller figure than President Obama. On stage, they were roughly the same size.

What was Obama doing all this time? Well, inexplicably, he was helping Romney achieve an equal status, by offering Romney a leg-up and staging a pretty effective Obama-disappearing act.

Things started to go sideways for Obama in the early going of the debate, during a discussion that was supposed to be about jobs:

When it comes to our tax code, Governor Romney and I both agree that our corporate tax rate is too high, so I want to lower it, particularly for manufacturing, taking it down to 25 percent. But I also want to close those loopholes that are giving incentives for companies that are shipping jobs overseas. I want to provide tax breaks for companies that are investing here in the United States. On energy, Governor Romney and I, we both agree that we've got to boost American energy production, and oil and natural gas production are higher than they've been in years. But I also believe that we've got to look at the energy sources of the future, like wind and solar and biofuels, and make those investments.

The cardinal sin here? Obama's repetition of the phrase "Governor Romney and I both agree." The incumbent, in this setting, should never, ever accede to an agreement with the challenger. Especially when Politifact would rate "I agree with Mitt Romney" as "Mostly false." The simple fact of the matter is that Obama and Romney are not in agreement on tax reform or energy production, and the point of a debate is to shine a light on these differences. Obama may be a creature of conciliation, but there's no grand bargain to be wrought between he and Romney on policies -- this is an election.

All of this goes double, by the way, when your baseline strategy is to remind voters that your opponent refuses to discuss his plans in detail. If your best weapon is your opponent's lack of specificity, why lend him your specifics? The strategy of Team Obama Re-Elect, up to now, has been to cast Romney as someone who is hiding his true intentions. So it makes no sense to turn around, in your first face-to-face confrontation, and say, "I'll vouch for the guy."

But the most important flaw here is that from the get-go, Obama was helping to elevate Romney's stature, when he should have been demolishing it. The effect that the above passage has on undecided voters is it gets them thinking, "Hey, it turns out that this Romney guy isn't too far off from the policies of the Leader of the Free World. I'd like to hear him out, then."

A second, basic strategic through-line that anyone who knows anything about Mitt Romney, and his well-known propensity for both dissembling about his policy proposals and changing his positions when it suits him, uses is that you should probably be prepared to point out his dissembling and his position-switching. A day after the debate, Team Obama Re-Elect is pointing out, rightly, the vast array out lies that Romney told on the stage -- the most astonishing one being his claim that he has not proposed a $5 trillion tax cut.

But pointing it out the day after the debate is like complaining the replacement refs gave an unearned touchdown to the Seattle Seahawks -- sure, you're in the right, but when I open the newspaper and check the NFL standings, there's that Seahawks victory in the "win" column, staring back at me for all eternity. Obama needed to deconstruct those lies in real time on the debate stage, not wait for the league commissioner to weigh in 24 hours later. Jonathan Chait offers a theory as to why this proved so difficult:

Probably the best way to understand Obama’s listless performance is that he was prepared to debate the claims Romney has been making for the entire campaign, and Romney switched up and started making different and utterly bogus ones. Obama, perhaps, was not prepared for that, and he certainly didn’t think quickly enough on his feet to adjust to it.

But how was Obama not prepared for that? Being prepared for that specific tendency of Romney's is pretty much the first thing for which you need to be prepared! Look at it this way: Most of the time, if you come upon a skunk in the wild, the encounter is likely to pass without incident. But if you are unlucky enough to run up on a skunk in the wrong circumstances and it ends up spraying you with stink, you don't get to shout, "WTF, skunk! That was unexpected!" It's in the skunk's nature to spray you. And it's in Romney's nature to radically alter his position on issues when it suits his purposes.

Instead, the excuse being offered by Obama is that he ran into a Romney he never thought he'd ever meet. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), back in 1994, indelibly hung the nickname "Multiple-Choice Mitt" around Romney's neck. It's a real pity that Obama and Kennedy weren't close or anything, you know? At any rate, it largely fell to Obama's campaign subordinates to point out the fact that Romney had switched up on them during the debate. From Wednesday night to Thursday morning, all of this just further diminished Obama in the eyes of observers.

Finally, Obama closed the debate by -- again, inexplicably -- erasing himself and the last four years of his presidency: "Four years ago I said I'm not a perfect man and I'm not a perfect president, and that's probably a promise Governor Romney thinks I've kept. But I also promised I'd fight every single day for the American people ... I've kept that promise. And, if you vote for me, then I promise I'll fight just as hard the second term."

That first sentence is simply astounding. It's like Obama is saying, "Hey, Mitt, you forgot to zing me, but don't worry, I've got your back." From there, it's just self-effacement, trying to get over as a show of humility. Gosh, Obama says, I have tried my best.

Look, Joe Biden, who was actually the most watched person to take the stage at either convention, summed up the Obama presidency thusly: "General Motors is alive, and Osama bin Laden is dead." Biden is describing a man who has profoundly impacted the country -- a figure of bona fide world-historical importance.

But that guy didn't show up Wednesday night. Watching the debate, you'd have no idea that Obama was a consequential person at all. The auto industry may be alive, and our epic terrorist foe may be sleeping with the fishes (literally), but Obama may as well have been the guy from the human resources department, who processed all the TPS reports related to the General Motors-saving/Osama bin Laden-slaying projects. You don't send that guy to battle a real-live CEO.

OBAMA DEBATE INEPTITUDE, IN ONE EXCHANGE: The Obama campaign has made a big deal about Romney's "47 percent" remarks since the video of Romney characterizing half of America as hopeless, shiftless, "victims" at a donor party surfaced. Those remarks formed the backbone of one of its most brutal attack ads. So, why not drive the lane on the matter during the debate?

Jim Messina -- who is evidently some sort of "campaign manager" -- explained it thusly: "It just didn't come up in the course of the conversation. We continue to believe it is a very clear difference. Gov. Romney is trying to run away from that comment. It just didn't come up tonight."

What was the plan, then? Hope for Jim Lehrer to pose the question, "What about Romney's gaffes?" Everyone who bothered to check knew that the debate format was six, 15-minute segments on a broad domestic policy topic. What you are supposed to do with that is bend the conversation back around to the salient points you want to make about your opponent. One of the topics was a catch-all discussion on each candidate's opinion on the "role of government" in the lives of Americans. That would have probably been a good moment to point out that Romney said, "It's not my job to worry about those people."

This is on the same level of incompetence as Mark Penn, a chief strategist in Hilary Clinton's presidential bid in 2008, not knowing how the Democratic primaries worked.

ROMNEY BEATS THE GOP ESTABLISHMENT: Last week, we told readers that if they really wanted to find signs of Romney's imminent demise, they should dismiss the media consensus and instead study the actions taken by various conservative factions -- beginning first and foremost with those who control and direct large amounts of campaign money. The clearest sign that Romney is in trouble is if that money starts getting directed down ticket, in an attempt to preserve and obtain legislative majorities in the face of an imminent Obama win.

Going into Wednesday's debate, here's one of the news stories that greeted Romney, from Fox Business' Charlie Gasparino:

The Romney campaign is experiencing what some officials believe could be the beginning of a mass exodus of big money donors diverting their cash away from the Republican presidential hopeful and toward Republican candidates for the House and Senate races more likely to win in November, the FOX Business Network has learned.

The first benefit of Romney's debate victory is that he's going to forestall this, and keep those donors at home. The second benefit of Romney's debate victory? It's going to put the kibosh on all of the endless carping and armchair quarterbacking from conservative pundits and activists that had Ann Romney yawping, "Get in the ring." As Steve Kornacki put it:

All of this destructive chatter ceased Wednesday night, and the right is now re-energized, believing once again that the White House is winnable. We’ve seen something like this happen before: Remember the jubilant reaction of Democrats on September 30, 2004, when John Kerry – whom they’d all but given up for dead – turned in a command debate performance against a listless George W. Bush?

So, any lingering doubts? Perhaps. As Molly Ball noted, "The debate's most significant development was the unequivocal debut of a moderate, pragmatic Romney -- the Romney who governed Massachusetts and has rarely been seen since his 2007-era reinvention as an archconservative." And that's not sitting well with everyone on the right. Here's Philip Klein:

Another reason for caution is that Romney, as part of his efforts to disarm Obama’s criticisms, made a number of policy concessions that could box him in and make it more difficult for him to govern as a limited government conservative if elected. At various times during the debate Romney said that he wasn’t interested in cutting taxes, particularly on the wealthy; that he would cover individuals with pre-existing conditions; that he wouldn’t touch Medicare and Social Security over the next decade and would be willing to give more money to seniors for prescription drugs; and that he’d be open to hiring more teachers. Should he be elected president, all of the major fights –- repealing Obamacare, overhauling the tax code and reforming entitlements – will trigger a massive campaign by liberals to portray him as trying to hurt the poor to the benefit of the rich. If he is so willing to concede policy points during the campaign, will he fight for limited government as president?

Mike Riggs adds: "In other words, Romney “won” by promising big-government conservatism in the vein of George W. Bush. Actual conservatives should be furious and very worried."

Maybe so. But we think that actual conservatives mostly would just like to win the election. They have, for the most part, allowed Romney to operate without pinning him down on whether he plans to be the hand of transformative austerity or a closet-Keynesian.

THIS WAS NOT A ROMNEY LIE, BY THE WAY: Over at Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson rounds up "Mitt Romney's Five Biggest Lies." We think he might have fallen one short, however:

"We've got 23 million people out of work or [who have] stopped looking for work in this country." Romney is lying for effect. The nation's crisis of joblessness is bad, but not 23 million bad. The official figure is 12.5 million unemployed. An additional 2.6 million Americans have stopped looking for jobs. How does Romney gin up his eye-popping 23 million figure? He counts more than 8 million wage earners who hold part-time jobs as also being "out of work."

Careful now. It's pretty glib to be able to say that those 8 million Americans who are holding down part-time jobs are not "out of work," but have you met any of those people? The simple fact of the matter is that lots of Americans are struggling to get by on part-time employment, and those who do show up in the U6 unemployment numbers as "underemployed" -- are people who want to be working full-time, but can only find part-time work. Part-timers, in addition, don't take home important benefits like employer-provided health care or paid sick leave.

Naturally, we've noted that as the U4 employment numbers started to get relatively rosier, critics of the Obama administration suddenly became super-interested in the U6 numbers. (That is, up until Friday, when they unleashed an embarrassing display of craze-faced conspiracy-mongering on the Bureau Of Labor Statistics latest jobs report.) You can bet your sweet bippy that if Romney wins election, all that renewed interest in the U6 numbers will fade, if we let it. But as long as they've brought it up, we should maintain an interest in it, because it tells the story of the fragile employment arrangements that many Americans are enduring.

So, go ahead and call Romney insincere or disingenuous in bringing this up, but don't call this a lie. It's not. It's all too real for millions of Americans struggling to get by on less.

ELECTORAL PROJECTION: It's time once again for your Speculatroners to end the week with our trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, analysis of prevailing economic trends, pundit speculation, and a meeting in a Rosslyn, Va., parking garage with the guy who runs the "X-Files" section at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

People like backing winners, and so we expect that Romney is going to get something of a bounce from his debate win. People also like economic recovery, and Friday's jobs report could blunt Romney's bounce in a material way. But we don't have the numbers in front of us to be certain how much the race will close. As First Read points out, none of us do: "They will be PLENTY of polls for everyone to see. But realistically, the first polls you should trust that will absorb the ENTIRE impact of the debate and post-debate are the runs released no sooner than Tuesday… You want surveys that were actually in the field Sunday and Monday."

But we obviously can't wait for Tuesday to make some kind of half-assed guess about the electoral college today, can we? So we'll generically assume that the race will tighten, and many of the battleground states -- Colorado, Virginia, Florida, and Nevada -- are going to be back or near-to-being-back in Romney's column some time next week. But Obama's firewall in Ohio remains intact. We sure hope Ohioans aren't yet sick to death of political advertising, because that is precisely what is going to consume their lives for the next month.

electoral projection october five

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Romney Campaign In Total Disarray After Thomas Friedman's Devastating Foreign Policy Critique

Jason Linkins   |   October 3, 2012    1:20 PM ET

Going into Wednesday night's debate, Mitt Romney has a decent chance to alter the underlying dynamics of the campaign and achieve a somewhat more favorable position to close the gap with President Barack Obama in the remaining weeks of the race. And not just because Politico reports that Politico reports this is true, in a Politico exclusive. As Steve Kornacki writes, "They won't say it loudly, but Romney's team is hoping to replicate what John Kerry did at the end of September 2004, when he won rave reviews for his debate performance and almost overnight closed most of what had been a six-to-eight point gap against George W. Bush."

But apparently, this is all for naught, because according to Mark Halperin, Mitt Romney has already lost an utterly critical political constituency, and is probably doomed to wander the earth like a pauper, or whatever:

Mitt Romney decisively loses the Tom Friedman Primary. Boston will likely say "who cares?" and "big surprise (not)," rather than asking why it happened and what the political (and potential governing) implications are.

Yes, according to Halperin's list of "required reading," this Sept. 29 Tom Friedman op-ed tells the dire story for Romney and his electoral hopes. Now, when I read this a few days ago, it sure seemed to me that all Friedman was saying was that he found Obama's foreign policy approach to be one that's "thinking afresh about the world," while Romney's was acting "as if he learned his foreign policy at the International House of Pancakes." By which I thought he meant that Romney's foreign policy is affordable, delicious, and you shouldn't sleep on the butter pecan syrup, because it's a game-changer.

Now that I've read Mark Halperin's take, I obviously know differently. Rather than a column that makes some generic observations about two candidates' foreign policy platforms, I realize now that this was actually a "Tom Friedman Primary," in which Tom Friedman voted and the winner of that vote received Tom Friedman delegates who were subsequently sent to the Tom Friedman state convention. Now, things were pretty touch-and-go for a while, as Ron Paul's devotees briefly staged a delegate takeover using their knowledge of the Tom Friedman procedural rules, but in the end the Tom Friedman state party chair took control of the situation.

Barack Obama, by the way, lost the Tom Friedman Primary many months ago as a result of Friedman's inability to find critical information about Obama's preferred policy outcomes that was widely available on the internet. If Romney has lost the Tom Friedman Primary as well, this just means that Friedman will support the Platonic ideal of an Americans Elect candidate as everyone expects, delivering to that non-existent contender all of Cloudcuckooland's electoral votes.

Now, Halperin adds that "Boston" -- his catch-all term for "the Romney campaign" -- "will likely say 'who cares?' and 'big surprise (not),' rather than asking why it happened and what the political (and potential governing) implications are." Well, if "Boston" wants to know "why it happened," they can just read the op-ed. If they want to know "what the political ... implications are," they can consult a dictionary for the definitions of the words "nothing" and "nil." Because there is not some cohort of persuadable voters in America who were waiting for Tom Friedman to write a column insisting that Obama and Romney had some generic foreign policy differences to make up their minds about the election. So I'm not going to fault "Boston" for offering up a big ol' "Who cares?" shrug.

It should be pointed out, though, that Romney's inability to win Friedman's favor and prevent Halperin's ensuing concern is very similar to Romney's alienating the "47 percent" in his famous donor-party remarks, because Friedman and Halperin account for 47 percent of the bullshit that is written about politics in America.

(This is all good news for John McCain, etc.)

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Obama-Romney Debate: What To Watch For In Denver

Jason Linkins   |   October 2, 2012    6:21 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Wednesday night, the 2012 campaign-a-palooza will proceed to another important series of events, the presidential debates. Beginning in Denver, Americans will be tuning in to see President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (as well as Vice President Joe Biden and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan) spar with each other on matters both foreign and domestic.

Here's some good news: unlike the 2011-2012 GOP primary season, there will not be 700 kabillion of these things. Those vying to be president shall meet on just three occasions, and their running mates shall joust just once. So these debates will not nearly be as tiresome as the ones that seemed to come weekly in January 2012 or December 2011. Or November. Or September and August. Remember when there was a primary debate back in May 2011? We think we can all agree that was a terrible idea.

In addition, these debates are being managed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which tends to enforce a certain amount of staid decorum. This means that unlike the primary season debates, the audiences will not tend to be as rambunctious, and the proceedings will not be captured as episodes of some grand reality show contest, as CNN opted to depict them during the primaries, despite the fact that it made CNN look utterly idiotic.

The bad news? Well, if you were hoping for an appearance from, say, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, or Green Party hopeful Jill Stein, forget it. These debates are just as corrupt and broken as the others in terms of shutting out alternative voices to the two-party system. Despite the fact that Johnson and Stein are on the presidential ballot in a sufficient number of states, neither has cleared 15 percent in any national poll, a requirement the commission strictly enforces. Of course, supporters of these candidates might ask, "Why not test the viability of these candidates' policies and positions by providing them with the level of national exposure that these debates provide? Maybe then the candidates would become more popular with the public." ("Because reasons, shut up," the Commission on Presidential Debates would reply.)

Anyway, here's everything you need to know about Wednesday's opening salvo in televised presidential forensics.

THE VENUE AND TOPIC AREA: The first debate, held at the University of Denver's Magness Arena, is slated to be about domestic policy. One hopes that the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crash -- especially the ongoing unemployment and foreclosure crisis -- will be heavily featured in the discussion, but you can also expect the candidates to respond to questions about their plans for tax reform, entitlement programs, health care reform and the deficit. Those topics alone could crowd out a 90-minute debate session, which means that one thing you'll want to watch for is which topics don't make it to the table. Student loans, immigration reform, infrastructure restoration, financial regulatory reform -- one or more of these topics might not end up getting discussed.

THE MODERATOR: Moderating the first debate will be PBS NewsHour host Jim Lehrer, and if you've been longing for the 2012 presidential contest to emerge from its extended period of superficiality and become, at last, substantive, Lehrer is your best hope. The man wrote the book on presidential debates -- literally. His instructive memoir of the years he's spent both as a moderator of debates and a student of the genre, "Tension City" is a terrific insider take on how moderators prepare and shape the contests, with deep detail on many of the "frozen moments" we remember from debates past.

If "Tension City" gives us any clue as to how Lehrer is approaching his task, you can expect him to be meticulously well-prepared. The man pretty much agonizes over the language he uses to engage the candidates. He'll have spent weeks drafting, redrafting, and refining his inquiries -- and he'll have done so out of a sense of duty. Of course, if you've read "Tension City," you'll know that in it, he vowed that he was getting out of the debate moderation game, and he's apparently "seething" about criticism that he's "too old and too safe to moderate yet another debate."

Nevertheless, he'll leave his mark on the Denver debate.

THE DEBATE FORMAT: And this is how. The format of the opener deviates slightly from debates we've seen before. Rather than pose nine questions of each candidate, Lehrer got the commission to agree to change things, and allow 15 minutes of discussion for six topic areas. Lehrer's goal: to get the candidates to "ask each other questions and wrangle, like guests on Sunday TV talk shows."

THE PRE-GAME STRATEGY: By now, you've probably heard that the "Expectations Game" -- in which surrogates of each candidate profess a worry that their guy is going to be a walking disaster and that their opponent is the most eloquent debater since Cicero litigated the Catilinarian Conspiracy -- is in full effect. Dan Amira was at his satiric best in sending up how the "Expectations Game" works, but the general goal here is for each campaign to place the lowest possible bar before their candidate, so there's no chance they won't clear it.

Beyond that, we are told that Mitt Romney has been rehearsing a bunch of awesome "debate zingers," in the hopes that he will be able to manufacture some sort of "frozen moment" that the media will remember the next day. This may be dismaying to any of Romney's nominal allies, who have urged him in recent days to "go large" or concentrate on providing specifics to the domestic policy plans he has purposely kept vague. But giving Romney some quips to toss around may prove to be a good idea. In recent contests, Romney's improvisations have been more of the "$10,000 bet" variety. It's worth noting that back during his gubernatorial run, Romney was excellent at spontaneous pushback and was generally held to be a superior debater. But that was way back before Romney needed satellite technology to find his way back to his policy positions.

For the Obama campaign, the general concern is that the president will come off as too "professorial" during the debate. Now, professor-like qualities tend to get an unfair rap in the world of political messaging, but it's not for nothing that Obama joked that former President Bill Clinton should be his secretary of explaining things. Clinton has well nigh mastered the art of breaking down complicated matters for audiences of ordinary Americans. He's thorough, but he's empathic -- crafting stories instead of lectures. Obama, by contrast, has the tendency to head straight into the long-winded weeds of wonkdom, which means he's spending more valuable time having less of an impact on the audience.

Aside from that concern, the Obama camp is likely worried about what might happen if Romney manages to get under their candidate's skin. The old 2008 primary debate clip of Obama telling Hillary Clinton that she was "likeable enough" has been in heavy rotation this week as the media sets the stage for this contest. (This is probably why Romney is working on "zingers," by the way.)

THE POTENTIAL GAME-CHANGER: Earlier this week, it was reported that Republicans were laying out a late-game strategy to make the Obama administration's muddled response to the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, a focal point of their case against the president. The problem? Romney's first opportunity to bring up foreign policy at a debate won't happen until Oct. 16. Technically, anyway. Romney seemingly jumped on board with the plan, this week publishing an op-ed on the topic that has Salon's Craig Unger speculating that "he may well turn the subject to Libya" on Wednesday. (It's worth pointing out that on Sunday's edition of "Fox News Sunday," the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol advised Romney to ignore Jim Lehrer's questions.)

WHAT'S AT STAKE: For Romney, there's some potential ground to be made up in the polls if he comes to the debate and performs adequately. Depending on how much narrowing in the polls occurs between now and Wednesday, there's even the potential to draw the race back into a dead heat by week's end (though the problems he's facing in states like Ohio are still much more affected by the ground game at this point).

As a challenger, Romney's baked-in advantage is that this will be the first time he's actually shared the stage with Obama as an equal. Consequently, that "choice" that America has between two possible futures is going to be much less abstract in the minds of voters when they are presented with two plausible chief executive choices. Just by standing on the same podium, Romney could benefit from a simple levelling effect. (Oh, hey, it's worth a reminder! You stand ON a podium. You stand BEHIND a lectern. After the debate, you can make fun of all the experienced political reporters that get this wrong.)

Of course, being declared (plausibly!) the "winner" of the debate will have an advantageous effect as well, as undecided voters do tend to want to back "winners." Of course, the heavy lifting of "winning" the debate will continue for hours after the debate ends, as campaign spin-doctors make the case for their candidate for the benefit of thousands of reporters who will be flown to Denver to be spin-doctored. Why we bother to send so many reporters halfway across the country just so they can be bullshitted at by campaign proxies is a good question, and it is not something we are looking forward to explaining one day to a hyper-intelligent race of extra-terrestrial visitors. Hopefully, they will just nuke us from space, with death rays.

SOME FINAL DEBATE-WATCHING ADVICE: On this Sunday's edition of "This Week," former Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean made the following recommendation to debate viewers: "The key to a debate, if you want to see how it moves the American people, is to turn off the sound, watch the mannerisms." That's an interesting idea. We, however, would recommend you turn off the sound and cue up Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side Of The Moon," instead.

Wednesday's debate is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time. It will go 90 minutes, and will be broadcast in its entirety on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and C-SPAN, as well as on ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC.

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Joe Biden Will Save Medicare With His Raw, Sexual Dynamism, Apparently

Jason Linkins   |   October 2, 2012    3:12 PM ET

This week, most of America is focused on the upcoming commencement of debate season, the prospect for greater economic policy specifics and the Obama administration's response to the attacks in Benghazi. But can you spare a few thoughts to consider the extent to which Vice President Joe Biden is a lean, mean symbol of raw sexuality? I'm asking because Politico forced me to consider this today, for some reason.

As Jonathan Allen relates, following Biden on the stump is like watching a Caucasian, septuagenarian version of Usher make love in this club:

He’s kissed women on the lips -- and the cheek. He pulled a biker chick so close to him at one pit stop that she appeared to be sitting in his lap in photos. And he's talked about the acrobatic acts of cheerleaders in terms that would draw at least a PG-13 rating in Hollywood.

It's worth noting that everything short of found-footage torture porn perpetrated by Japanese horror-movie demons basically draws a PG-13 rating in Hollywood, but point made: Joe Biden is 2012's version of Casanova, only he really likes trains. And there's one particular subset of the electorate that Biden is consistently leaving breathless: ladies who depend on Medicare to relieve their respiratory distress. According to Allen, "Women born before the Baby Boom generation seem to have a collective crush on a handsome vice presidential candidate with piercing blue eyes and a wide smile who likes to talk about government benefits for seniors."

Allen continues, "In a Gallup poll taken in August, Romney led Obama 48 percent to 43 percent among women 65 and older but trailed among three other age groups -- 18 to 29, 30 to 49 and 50 to 64." So Biden has been deployed to speak to, and perhaps shore up, this outlier demographic because he is "the same age as some of the seniors who worry about Republicans' talk of cutting back on entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security."

And if Paul Ryan doesn't have the time to "explain the math," Biden can counter that by making time, with flirty remarks and, who knows, maybe there's a footrub or two in there? A little chaste canoodling?

Joe Biden balls so hard with the senior set, is what I'm saying.

As Allen reports, "The Obama campaign declined to comment for this story." That is certainly disappointing!

READ THE WHOLE THING:
Joe Biden: Sex symbol? [Politico]

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The Sense Of An Ending: The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For Sept. 28

Jason Linkins   |   September 29, 2012    8:05 AM ET

This week, the frenzied activity of the campaign trail seems to hit a caesura, of sorts, perhaps because now that we're at, or near, a halfway point between the party conventions and Election Day, with a quartet of looming debates set to begin Wednesday. So, the world of politics took a bit of a pause. We railed against replacement refs, atoned for whatever we said in the heat of that railing, and took a moment to catch our breath. And what we couldn't help but notice was that in this brief intermission, a distinct mood had settled in -- that the competitive part of the election was over, and that the GOP challenger, Mitt Romney, was toast.

Of course, it's understandable -- the vast majority of the numbers we saw in the polls were nothing but grim for Romney. Many of the critical bounces that President Barack Obama had opened in important swing states continued to flower in the direction of the incumbent. And the Gallup daily tracking poll, which had suggested a narrowing only a week ago, had broken back in the president's favor as well. One of the states we'd all but penciled into Romney's column from jump, North Carolina, was seemingly wavering. Obama was mulling a play for Arizona.

In addition, the quasi-history of recent elections strongly suggests that the end of September is a point of no return in presidential politics, where the leader tends to hold that lead until the end. And while Romney actually had a good week, relatively speaking -- he didn't stride headlong into hidden rakes, a la Sideshow Bob of "Simpsons" fame -- the significance of his "47 percent" remarks from prior weeks continued to resonate, and resonate more deeply.

Most importantly, however, there was mounting evidence that Romney's central argument was failing on the battlegrounds where -- and with the voters who -- it most needed to succeed. As Steve Kornacki wrote on Salon.com, "By a 51-45 percent margin in Ohio, voters believe Obama is better equipped to handle it than Romney. In Florida, the spread is 51-46 percent. And clear majorities of voters in both states -– 56 percent in Florida and 58 percent in Ohio -– say that the economy is either improving now because of Obama’s policies or will improve because of them."

Kornacki continues:

Findings like these undercut the basic premise of Romney’s campaign, that economic anxiety will be enough to prompt swing voters to give up on Obama and use Romney as a vehicle for their protests. For this strategy to have any chance of working, a majority of voters must conclude that Obama’s policies have failed or are failing, and that Romney (or, really, any president not named Obama) would do a better job managing the economy. But this isn’t happening. As Greg Sargent has been documenting, national polling on economic questions has actually swung in Obama’s favor since the Democratic convention, and now we see the same thing happening in these battleground states.

Romney is also dogged by serious image problems. In both Florida and Ohio, just 41 percent of voters have a favorable view of him, while Obama’s score is well over 50 percent in both states. And only 41 percent of voters in Florida and 38 percent in Ohio say that Romney cares about people like them. This reflects the failure of Romney over the summer months and at his convention to repair the battered image with which he emerged from the GOP primaries. It also adds context to a study released earlier this week that shows Romney struggling with white working-class voters outside of the South.

Now, your Speculatroners want to take a moment right here to state, firmly, that we do not subscribe to the notion that the election is a done deal. Important caveats remain wedged in our mind. For instance, as we've written before, we acknowledge that John Kerry managed to make up a significant amount of lost ground during the debates. We also cannot ignore the palpable volatility of the times we are living in, both here at home with a tenuous economy and abroad, where strife in the Middle East continues to garner attention and stoke worry. One of the reasons we conclude that the end-of-September leader tends to hold that lead is simply because the winnowing window of time begins to preclude the possibility of exogenous events changing the "game." But these days, we always seem to be perpetually on the brink of something unexpected happening.

Beyond that, your Speculatroners are just deathly allergic to anything that smells like premature consensus. Especially when it's political reporters and pundits reaching what seems to be that consensus. When a political reporter wishes you a happy birthday, you know ... trust but verify. That said, here are four things to watch for in the coming weeks that will better clue you in as to whether Romney's chances remain good, or if he's a walking cadaver.

1. Simply put, follow the money. The Republican Party isn't just trying to win the White House, you know. It also is trying to maintain a majority in the House. More importantly, the GOP wants to win back control of the Senate -- and if Obama's re-election starts to look inevitable to the GOP, their efforts will shift to the Senate in a hurry. The first debate next week has already been largely imagined as Romney's make-or-break moment -- if he doesn't move the needle with his performance, a lot of campaign cash is going to be redirected downticket.

2. Keep an eye on any weird strategic shifts. Perhaps the most significant statement of this week was Karl Rove saying, “There are 11 different ways to win without Ohio.” Well, there might be two or three -- few involve potentially losing North Carolina, of course -- but recent history doesn't favor presidential candidates who concede the Buckeye State. As Opportunity Ohio president Matt A. Mayer tells the National Review:

I don’t want to be the one who contradicts Karl Rove’s view that Romney can win without Ohio, but he can’t. It isn’t just that historically no Republican has won the presidency without Ohio’s electoral votes that 'proves' that point. It also is the fact that Ohio is a bellwether state, so if a candidate cannot win Ohio -- especially a candidate operating under a very-low-margin-of-error strategy -- the likelihood that that candidate wins enough of the other five to nine toss-up states is not high.

Going back to point one -- "follow the money" -- you should keep in mind, of course, that Rove commands where a crap-ton of Republican campaign money goes.

3. Got friction on the ticket? A goodly portion of the political world was tricked this week into believing that Roger Simon was writing a "news story" when he described Paul Ryan referring to Mitt Romney, as "The Stench." He was actually writing a bit of satire -- not a particularly good piece of satire, it should be noted -- but the whole bit about having finger sandwiches with Peggy Noonan should have tipped readers off. Everyone knows Peggy Noonan eats half-smokes, chugs tallboys, and listens to Black Flag. Come on!

That said, Roger Simon could end up having the last laugh. His column was riffing on a real-live worry that conservatives have -- that a tanking Romney could damage the brand of Kid Serious. The whole "stench" thing came from a quote from former Iowa Republican Party director Craig Robinson, in a quote to The New York Times for a story that was largely concerned with documenting just how desperately Republicans want Romney to take Ryan off the leash. And to what extent is Ryan leashed up now that he's living his life inside the Romney bubble? Word around the campfire is that it's more than the gregarious Ryan would normally prefer.

4. When one's party loses a major national election, the next thing one must do is strive to be a survivor of the circular firing squad that follows. So another sign that Romney is tanking is for conservative partisans seeding the earth for their post-election arguments and blame-shifting.

Perhaps you've heard of "Unskewed Polls," the new conservative invention that holds that Romney is actually out to a significant lead, everywhere based on space algebra? Well, one thing you need to recognize is that this effort is not really about helping Romney get elected. If you're in a close election, you don't tell your base that you secretly have the election in the bag! Fear is always a better motivator than complacency -- recall that when the Obama campaign was concerned about their cash reserves, they sent out the worrisome warning, "We will be outspent." And lo, the Obama campaign made up significant ground.

So you should look at "Unskewed Polls" as less of a strategic effort to get Romney elected, and more of a long-game effort to mount a war against pollsters once the election is over. (They will magically have a case, no matter which way the election turns out: if Obama wins, pollsters are in the tank; if Romney wins, pollsters are terrible and wrong about everything.)

Additionally, look for criticism of whatever phantom forces foisted Romney upon the GOP in the first place, or discussion of "what might have been." If only Rick Santorum has gotten the nomination, we'd have won this going away! (Here, I guess we look past all of the Republican National Committee rule changes, enacted at the convention, that will make small-cash candidacies like Santorum's even more impossible to mount.)

Of course, even if many of these things slowly begin to materialize over the next week, it's not some virtual guarantee that Romney is bound for a loss. Only the voters get to decide that. But what does it tell you about the 2012 race that the candidate who can rightly claim to have restored his party's confidence, re-earned some of its support, and rejuvenated his chances for election after he spent a significant amount of time eating some dumb words he should not have said is Todd Akin, and not Mitt Romney?

As Dylan sang, "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there."

SMALL STAKES: Let's move abruptly to the question of what is squandered by losing an election to what, if any, glory is to be had in winning one. The hoary cliche of every election, as those who are invested heavily in the results, is that it is always "the most important election of our lifetime." It's too bad we don't have elections where it's easy to say, "Ehh, you know, no big deal what happens, everyone go get some sleep," but there you go. When we hear about the election's importance these days, we'll admit to some involuntary eyerolling. And this week, Chris Cillizza made the point a little better than the occasional jerks in our ocular cavity when he wrote, "The 2012 campaign is mediocre. It just is."

In some ways, this campaign fits the times in which it is being run. Gone is the optimism of 2008 -- or even 2000 -- that a single person elected president might just be able to change things in Washington. Taking its place is a widespread belief that things in the country are off on the wrong track and, perhaps even more corrosive, a fading belief that our institutions (Congress, Wall Street, the media) can or will do anything to make things better.

Still, there is a striking disconnect between the bigness of the problems and challenges that face the country both domestically and internationally and the smallness of the campaign to elect the person who will try to lead us through these trying times.

Every once in a while, a post will come across our tumblr dashboard reminding us that, you know, whoever becomes president gets to pick Supreme Court justices, or some such thing, and we're jolted with the rare reminder that yes, the election has actual stakes and consequences. But there's a lot of merit to Cillizza's point, here. For years, the overall economic downturn and its tragic effects -- unemployment, foreclosures, dislocation -- have been presented not as a problem faced by and shared among ordinary Americans, but as tidal forces that solely impact the electoral hopes of otherwise affluent political figures. And by now, that mood has been internalized by this campaign -- which, while full to the brim with talk of the sins of past policies and paeans to a hopeful future -- contains very little reckoning with the here and now.

The race sure seems fascinating at times! The primary season had its share of woolly moments, and the various polls have opened and contracted enough to give the whole occasion a sense of competition. But it's been like watching plate tectonics on a pie crust -- wide enough, but a centimeter deep, and not sustaining enough to make one think too deeply about the state of the nation -- if the horse race is all you're consuming. At this point, we miss the Ron Paul campaign's spirited demonstration of electoral process parkour -- his run through the state conventions at least necessitated a fortifying study of the political process at ground level.

The point is, this race is effectively a contest between well-heeled political brands, not a grand election that's rooted in what's actually going on in America right now. And what is going on in America right now? Well as Chris Lehmann writes in The Baffler, "Data from the IRS shows that the Obama years have achieved almost nothing to remedy the yawning inequalities in the economy":

The top 1 percent of income earners have taken in fully 93 percent of economic gains since the Great Recession, the numbers show. That share outpaces Bush-era figures by a mile; as the economy emerged from the 2001-2 recession, the top 1 percent claimed a lousy 65 percent of the gains that followed.

Naturally, this is not all Obama's doing, Congress played a role -- often an obstructive one -- too. But it's funny to think about Romney being in competition with this, and -- for Pete's sake! -- whining about Obama's stance on "redistribution." Everything is being redistributed in the direction Romney prefers! How will he top it?

At this point, the presidential election is not so much a battle of ideas as much as it is a reputational war, in which every skirmish is solely designed to tear down somebody's "brand." Romney wants voters to think of Obama either as a dangerous threat to the concept of America, or as a nice guy who can't succeed because of the Peter Principle. Obama wants voters to think of Romney as an hypocrite tax-evader or an unfeeling outsourcer of American jobs (forgetting momentarily, perhaps, that he asked outsourcer/tax-evader extraordinaire Jeffrey Immelt to help put America back to work.)

We really needn't get in the weeds and try to evaluate which argument has the greatest merit. The fact is, there is a video of Romney playing right to the role that Team Obama Re-Elect cast him in, and so Obama now has the advantage. If Romney is losing, it's only because he's mired in the very stereotype that he should have set out -- at all cost -- to avoid. He is what we were trained in advance to expect him to be (and Romney, who ran four years ago on his health care reform initiative but only mentions it in fits and starts now, played a hand in that).

Still, as Matt Taibbi writes: "The fact that Barack Obama needed a Himalayan mountain range of cash and some rather extreme last-minute incompetence on Romney's part to pull safely ahead in this race is what really speaks to the brokenness of this system."

ECONOMY SHIFTS, FOR THE GOOD AND BAD: So as it turns out, America, the economy is doing great, and you didn't even know it! This week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics did a "rebenchmarking" of prior employment data that was collected up to March 2012 and found that we had 386,000 other jobs that everyone failed to notice the first time around. Hooray! Have you met one of the people who, as it turns out, was employed all this time? Tell them hello, from us!

As it also turns out, America, the economy is doing terrible, and you didn't even know it! The U.S. Department of Commerce also spent this week going back over previous economic data and found that the "U.S. economy grew at an even more sluggish pace in the 2nd quarter," and subsequently revised gross domestic product figures "downward from 1.7 percent to 1.3 percent."

What does all of this mean? Well, GDP is one of those big macroeconomic factors that political scientists keep a watch on when evaluating the likelihood of incumbent winning an election. The Wonkblog model, for example, uses "three pieces of information that have been found to be particularly predictive," including the incumbent's job approval rating and "economic growth in the year of the election, as measured by the change in gross domestic product during the first three quarters." With a 50 percent approval rating (where Obama is today) and 1.7 percent growth, Obama wins 86.5 percent of the time in that model.

At 1.3 percent growth, however, he drops to ... well ... okay, he only drops to 83 percent. Sorry we got you all worked up there, for a minute!

As for the jobs numbers, the BLS revisions do something significant to the race: they take away a critical Romney talking point. As Justin Wolfers explained: "The BLS benchmark revisions means that there has been a net jobs gain since January '09. Romney can no longer talk about job losses under Obama."

But anemic growth is still what's going on in America.

ELECTORAL PROJECTION: It's time once again for your Speculatroners to end the week with our trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, analysis of prevailing economic trends, pundit speculation and intense consultations with the recently cashiered replacement referees of the National Football League.

Right now, the separation in the polls that began to suggest a more optimistic yield of electoral votes for Obama has continued to prevail. As Charlie Cook writes:

Leading Democratic and Republican pollsters and strategists privately say that the Obama lead is around 4 or 5 points and is neither widening nor narrowing. The convention bounces have dissipated, but Romney’s negatives remain quite high and are not diminishing. In the Gallup three-week super-samples -- almost 10,000 interviews -- the percentage of Democrats saying that they will definitely vote has moved up to the point that it is now virtually tied with Republicans.

And, across the swing state battleground, the shift to Obama remains pronounced, save for one critical state -- Nevada. There, the race has drawn tighter, and the phenomenon that's enabling that could be the localized way the economy is trending. It is not, for example, Ohio -- where unemployment is down, John Kasich makes a bad Romney surrogate, and Obama's reputation for saving the American automobile industry pays huge dividends. Rather, it's a state with "one of the weakest economies in the country -- unemployment continues to hover at 12 percent, nearly 4 points above the national average." It's also a state with Sheldon Adelson.

Still, Nevada isn't much without some other states to go along with it. As long as Obama holds Ohio, he can part with a whole mess of states and get to 270. In fact, assuming he remains ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire, Obama can afford to lose Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, and Florida and -- Ohio in hand -- prevail. This is why it's unclear why Karl Rove believes there are so many ways to win without the Buckeye State. Nevertheless, our map will assume that the optimistic trend for Romney in Nevada will continue.

electoral projection september twenty eight

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Mitt's A Real Nowhere Man: The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For Sept. 21

Jason Linkins   |   September 22, 2012   10:23 AM ET

At the Values Voter Summit this past weekend, GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan lit into President Barack Obama for his propensity for making straw-man arguments: "No politician is more skilled at striking heroic poses against imaginary adversaries ... Nobody is better at rebuking nonexistent opinions. Barack Obama does this all the time." This is actually quite true. For all of Obama's celebrated oratorical skill and the celebrity standing of his speechwriters, the straw-man trope -- in which Obama invokes the "some" who are always "saying" or who "may say" that some outcome is impossible -- is an annoying rhetorical crutch, used constantly by the president.

The bad news for Ryan is that in Mitt Romney, Obama has drawn an imaginary adversary as his opponent -- a walking, breathing straw-man whose core identity has been thus far obscured. And it's been obscured because Mitt Romney has just about willed it to be that way. Ryan, now that he's had to take the time to do Romney's damage-control mop-up for him, can perhaps appreciate that fact a little more at the end of this week than he could over the weekend. At the very least, Ryan should be able to observe that he is just about the only thing that conservatives seem to authentically like about the Romney campaign.

The ironic thing about the Internet having spent such a considerable amount of time yesterday debating whether Romney actually sought to give his face a caramel sheen for the purpose of appealing to Hispanics during his Univision forum appearance, is that the foundation make-up Romney was wearing lent him more definition than the candidate himself has been able to manage in weeks. And that's been Romney's problem during this campaign: the first two big tasks of a political campaign are to define yourself and to define your opponent. That Romney has done little to achieve the former and pursues the latter in slipshod fashion is what's killing his campaign right now.

Let's zoom in on this week's big shiny hullabaloo: the recently released video of Romney at a donor bash, dishing on the "47 percent" of the electorate that he holds to be irretrievable moochers. It's very clear that this has caused Romney no small amount of consternation. It's not a matter he'd prefer to litigate at this late stage in the campaign. And it's never a good scene when your downticket allies are rebuking you over something you said. But it's not this "gaffe" itself that really hurts Romney. Indeed, as John Sides has found, the immediate impact of "gaffes" on public opinion is negligible.

But that doesn't mean they don't have an effect on the vitality of a campaign. As Alex Pareene explains, "gaffes" tend to "add up," because of the way the information that seems so hot and new and important to the tiny sliver of the population that's hyper-engaged about politics slowly flows out into the larger electorate:

What Sides shows is that gaffes don’t matter individually or immediately. And of course they don’t, because few people pay attention to the news the way we (journalists, commentators, bloggers and people who read Salon) do: almost obsessively. The Romney tape just came out on Monday, and the campaign has a couple days still to furiously spin in order to make sure that the end result is a wash for Romney. But it takes a bit of time for this stuff to trickle down to people who consume political news like normal people, in a limited and incidental fashion ... The comments will be repeated in ads in October and November (political science is also sorta iffy on whether or not ads matter, but still), and probably continue coming up every time Romney says or does anything for the next month. If he suddenly starts beating Obama nationally or in Ohio or Virginia, we can say this gaffe didn't matter, but if he continues trailing, his treatise on moochers will be part of the reason he can't bridge the gap.

This is why it's important to do a good job of defining yourself: It means you've already put a bunch of stuff on public display for voters to chew on, in advance of all the occasional slip-ups that come from just having to be in campaign mode all day, every day.

A good way to think about the central mission of a political campaign is to imagine the candidate is attempting to build a mosaic that illustrates what the future is going to look like if that candidate is elected. The candidate's job is to add tile after tile, gradually giving voters a full picture of what one envisions for the nation. What the candidate's opponent is going to try to do is obscure that image, by knocking tiles off the board or otherwise obscuring them. The central fight is to stack up assets and positives at a rate that exceeds attrition through opposition research and unforseeable unforced errors.

Candidates have some powerful tools at their disposal to fill in the picture at a fast clip. They can, for example, use the money and media at their disposal to mount a massive biographical campaign. They can use advisers and experts to craft a set of specific policies, with which they can make campaign promises and paint a picture of hoped-for outcomes. And a presidential candidate has the unique ability to speak broadly of big national missions in which all voters can play a part. Remember "bridge to the twenty-first century"?

Now that Romney has summarily dismissed nearly half the country as useless, this last option may no longer be open to him. This is ironic, because Romney has the distinct advantage of facing an incumbent whose best play, as far as establishing a national mission in which everyone can participate, is to promise to finish the old national mission he advanced four years ago. But the larger problem here is that Romney has failed to do the work of defining.

Romney's strange inability to put forth a positive version of his own biography is, indeed, a bafflement. Earlier this week, Jon Ward wrote about the "disappearing Mitt Romney" and how the Romney campaign's promise of a "push" to "better introduce their candidate to the nation ... has not materialized." And this is in spite of the fact that they've built the tools to do just that.

Per Ward:

Mitt Romney's campaign produced a 10-minute documentary film about the candidate that forced even liberal Democrats, when it was shown at the Republican National Convention, to admit that it was a moving portrayal of Romney's life and values.

The problem is not very many people have seen the video, and the Romney campaign appears to have made little effort to change that. Romney revealed to donors in Atlanta on Wednesday that he himself had not seen the entire thing until it was shown before his remarks at a fundraiser.

The vacuum, of course, has famously been filled by the Obama campaign, who spent the bulk of the summer hitting all of Romney's vulnerabilities and finding, to their surprise, that the candidate had seemingly no intention of fighting back. As a result, we now have a Pew Poll that finds that "Romney has gained no ground on Obama in being seen as more credible or more empathetic," and has Obama leading on nearly every issue category, despite the fact that we remain in a decidedly down economy.

And the bad economy? Well, that was supposed to provide Mitt Romney with another opportunity to define himself as the 'quick turnaround artist' who would lead the nation to a faster recovery than the 'in over his head' Obama. Romney has continually asserted that this is the case, but beyond those assertions, he's got nothing else. He has kept his plans and policies utterly vague, to the extent that his conservative allies have been urging him for months now to offer the specifics as to how a Romney administration could light the path forward out of our current economic straits.

If Romney had put some flesh on his bones, none of these endosteum-ravaging gaffes would be defining his candidacy right now. His failure to do so is baffling. But his failure to cut away the Obama campaign's flesh isn't going that well either.

There is, for a man in Romney's position, an abundance of material with which to make an authentic argument against the Obama campaign. The way the Obama administration has stumbled around with shifting explanations on the recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi is a good example of a current event on which Romney could be scoring points. From the GOP's perspective, the entire Libyan intervention is a sore thumb of inconsistency that makes no sense alongside the administration's soft-footing on the same sort of slaughter going on in Syria.

On the economic front, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have decidedly different opinions on what the best policy for the foreclosure crisis is: Romney's advantage is that Obama's plan, HAMP, has been a failure. Heck, Romney could start there and then borrow a slew of arguments against the Obama administration cribbed from Neil Barofsky's book; and as the guy who's vowed to disembowel what few guts actually exist in the Dodd-Frank law, Romney can make the 'Obama consistently failed Main Street' argument without offending Wall Street donors. At one point, Romney said he was reading Noam Schieber's book "The Escape Artists: How Obama's Team Fumbled The Recovery," which primed everyone to expect Schieber's critique to form the backbone of a lengthy argument. It hasn't materialized.

In fact, rather than do that, Romney went out of his way to mischaracterize Schieber as "pro-President Obama," an utterly needless assertion that only drew Schieber's ire.

But Romney's misarticulation of a book that could have actually served him in good stead is resonant of a consistent theme in Romney's attempts to define Obama: His criticisms of his opponent are all glaringly inauthentic. Whether it's 'apology tour' or 'sympathizes with attackers' or 'Obama is an enemy of success' or 'Obama is a socialist mastermind from Kenya' -- these criticisms, while they may rally the dead-enders, have limited salience among independent voters, and they certainly don't help you steal back votes from the key voting blocs (blacks, women, Hispanics) that they need to get back in the GOP tent.

What's more is that the lengthy attempt to hang the words "you didn't build that" around Obama's neck have done more to court backlash than it has to shore up a Romney constituency. And the reason it's played out this way is clear -- the media, which can look at the speech from which "you didn't build that" came and very quickly see the falsity of that line of attack, has rejected it and is now holding everything Romney says to a higher scrutiny.

Here's a tip for future presidential campaigns: The media will allow you to lie to the public for as long as you care to do so. To the political press, a lie you tell the voters is just another "interesting point of view" in a "grand debate." But the moment political reporters think you, the candidate, are lying to them, it's game over.

Now, if the Romney campaign isn't doing anything to help the public get to know its candidate, or offering specific policies or advancing salient critiques, what have they been doing all this time? We are glad we asked ourselves this question. The answer is that this campaign, bereft of ideas, is filling the void with tactics, one political maneuver after the other.

You can see that in their response to the "47 percent" flap this week. They've gone from standing firm behind Romney's previously unheard remarks to pretending the video (containing the remarks they just stood behind!) was "debunked"; to getting foursquare behind a 1998 video where Obama says the word "redistribution" but that actually revealed Obama as a standard-issue centrist Democrat 14 years ago; to attempting to make hay over Obama's remarks that "You can't change Washington from the inside," which is not just something Obama has been saying for years, it's something Romney has been saying for a long while as well.

Somewhere in that mess of tactical responses is something that maybe could have helped Romney get back on his feet, but the shifting gambits come so fast and change so quickly that none of them have time to marinate in the same way that the "47 percent" video has.

When former McCain aide Mark McKinnon wrote about his reaction to the "47 percent" video, his narrative was pretty telling. He had, up until then, been "giving Romney the benefit of the doubt, assuming that at some point during this campaign he would reveal some things about himself that would give me some insight into who he really is and what drives him." The donor party tape did exactly that, but it was "not what I was hoping for."

McKinnon is only echoing every one of Romney's nominal allies who have for months begged him to tell the country about himself, his plans, the path to the future on which he would set the country -- the real stakes of the race. Had he done so, there would be some weighty material to consider alongside the errors and opposition. There would be some counterweight to some of the damage that's come from the Obama campaign and the rigors of campaigning itself, with which the Romney campaign has become freighted. But Romney and his campaign have not done that work. And as a result, things like this donor party video have had an outsized salience in the campaign narrative.

The funny thing about this phenomenon is that it's not primarily the case that Romney's gaffes are hurting him because they say something about him. Rather, the gaffes are hurting him because they highlight the nothing about him.

AND YET, ROMNEY CAN ABSOLUTELY STILL WIN THIS THING: Not bet-hedging, just a fact. For all the dire pronouncements that this gaffe or that flub has doomed Romney's campaign to the Admiral Stockdale Memorial Dustbin, he is definitely not out of the running. And we should perhaps see this as a feature, not a bug, of life in America, land of opportunities and second chances. Only in America can one pursue Bigfoot hunting or UFO chasing as an actual job. Only in this country could Joe The Plumber be Joe The House Candidate, and not Joe The Guy Who Is Usually Elbow Deep In Human Excrement And Specializes In Extracting Plugs Of Human Hair From Underground Tubes.

The list of nations in which a man like Mitt Romney could plausibly contend to be head of state is not a long one. If we were all Aussie, "Crocodile" Bill Kristol would have long since driven Romney into the outback to be ravaged by dingoes. But America, f*** yeah, is on that list and so here we are in September, with Romney still alive and well and chasing after his opponent's diminishing convention bounce. Heck, y'all realize that the toughest election opponent that President Barack Obama has ever faced, by a mile or so, is ... Mitt Romney, right?

What we're trying to say is that the strongest and most enduring part of the American welfare state is the part that props up the fortunes -- both monetary and opportunistic -- of affluent celebrity politicians long after they've shown a high propensity for stumblebummery. So let us not count Romney out, by any means. Rather, let us consider Reid Cherlin's highly plausible scenario for "How Mitt Wins," which he lays out for GQ, especially steps 4 and 5:

4. Romney goes into the debates with expectations utterly in the basement. He exceeds them. How? By preparing hard and landing some good one-liners. (He has shown he is capable of doing this occasionally.)

5. As the nation looks on, Obama gets irritated, as he often does, by the very fact of having to spend time on the stage with Romney. This is exacerbated by the fact that Romney seems actually to be doing pretty well. Obama says something stupid. (He has shown he is capable of doing this occasionally.)

All well worth considering. After all, if we're going to compare Mitt to John Kerry, as many have done, we should honor the fact that Kerry, in 2004, made up a lot of ground after the first debate. It ultimately was not enough, but by the time Romney and Obama meet for their first debate, the gap between them may be less daunting than the one Kerry faced.

We're biased, because Chernin also uses an observation from our own Sam Stein, who tweeted this week: "Prediction: [Two weeks] from now, when these comments have faded [and the] race is still relatively close, story line will be: why can't O[bama] put R[omney] away?" Watch for this. The media loves a horse race, so they are always prepared to help make it one, at which point they will turn on the horse that has the slight lead and ask why that horse is so awful at winning.

Naturally, for all we know, there could be a very clear, observable reason why one candidate is failing to put the other one away. But it's just as likely that the reason no one has won the election yet is because Election Day has not yet happened.

CAMPAIGN AD KAYFABE: We think we can all agree that if we live in or near a swing state, political ads are the scourge of everyone's existence, and we hope that those who have inundated us in them will pay a hefty price for it when they come to meet their maker -- reserving the hottest place in hell for whoever allowed political ads to be shown before Hulu programming streams, thus denying us all that safe haven.

In order to underscore the overall reprehensibility of campaign ads, however, every election cycle needs a good article documenting precisely how phony they are. And so we commend you to John Stanton's enjoyable piece on the subject, where you will see all of Colorado's Democratic Representative Ed Perlmutter's staged conversations with fake people and Kentucky Republican House Candidate Andy Barr's ad featuring coal miners.

The guy in the latter ad, by the way? Identified as Heath Lovell? Not a coal miner. He's actually a coal company executive. You probably could tell, though, given that Lovell looks like he hasn't lifted a tool in his mother-loving life, and is ridiculously out of place dressed up like someone who might actually perform something we'd popularly define as "labor."

It should be noted, of course, that the aforementioned Mr. Perlmutter has drawn wide praise for an ad that the Atlantic's Andrew Cohen calls "the best of the season." You know, as far as he knows, anyway.

HERE'S A POLL THAT POLLS THE POLLED ABOUT ALL THE POLLING: Yes, this actually happened. A polling company polled people to find out how they felt about all the polls. The findings? "Among those who responded to the poll, 46 percent hold favorable views of polls in general, and 47 percent have negative ones."

More polls are needed!

ELECTORAL PROJECTION: It's time once again for your Speculatroners to end the week with our trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, analysis of prevailing economic trends, pundit speculation and complex numerological analysis of Mitt Romney's recently released 2011 tax returns.

At the beginning of the week, Obama's convention bounce was said to be on the wane, in keeping with what your Speculatroners had been expecting. However, we end the week with a little bit of uncertainty over that, and what we see in most of the battleground states is Obama keeping a consistent lead over Romney. There are exceptions: Colorado seems to be tightening up, and North Carolina remains extremely close. But Obama's advantage in Ohio remains wide, and lately he has opened up a lead in Florida that can't be sniffed at.

Most of the battleground states remain close enough for Romney to overcome his slight deficit -- and having conceded New Mexico, Romney can move resources around out west. It's worth noting that the notion that Romney could challenge Obama in Wisconsin seems to be fading, so if you want to complicate Obama's path to 270, Nevada and Colorado are the way to go.

electoral projection

This is, perhaps, the widest advantage we've gauged for the incumbent since we started doing these projections. We expect this to narrow before long.

Another Republican Senate Candidate Repudiates Mitt Romney

Jason Linkins   |   September 20, 2012    1:04 PM ET

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller on Wednesday became the latest Republican Senate candidate locked in a competitive race to distance himself from GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's "47 percent" remarks, which came to light after the wide release of a hidden camera video that documented Romney's appearance at a Boca Raton fundraiser. Heller joined Connecticut Senate aspirant Linda McMahon and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown in disowning Romney's take on the portion of the electorate he deemed to be "victims" who could not be convinced to forego government assistance.

Well, Hawaii Senate candidate Linda Lingle lingered a little longer without making a comment on Romney's lapsus linguae, but now she, too, has parted ways with him over the "victims" flap. The Honolulu Star Advertiser has the story:

'I am not a rubber stamp for the national party and I am not responsible for the statements of Mitt Romney,' Lingle said in an email. 'With that said, I do not agree with his characterization of all individuals who are receiving government assistance, as I know many of them are driven, hard-working individuals who are actively working to better the situation of their ‘ohana. It is not fair to place these individuals into any one category. The people of Hawaii know I don’t believe in labels and I know they don’t either.'

Lingle, a former governor of Hawaii, is facing a steeper climb in her Senate bid than any of the other Republican candidates who have come out against the remarks of their party's standardbearer, but her Democratic opponent, Rep. Mazie Hirono, had swiftly criticized Romney, so it seems that Lingle had no choice if she wanted to keep the race competitive. The last time Hawaii voters were polled, Hirono was up by 19 points.

In addition to Lingle, former Virginia Sen. George Allen, running against former Gov. Tim Kaine in a bid to return to the Senate, also distanced himself from Romney's remarks in a debate Thursday, saying that he has "his own point of view" on the matter, and that Americans "don't look at themselves as victims."

[Hat tip: National Journal]

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Angus King's Weird Stance On Caucusing Is Costing Him Votes In The Maine Senate Race

Jason Linkins   |   September 19, 2012    7:04 PM ET

When Angus King jumped into the U.S. Senate race in Maine to replace the retiring Olympia Snowe, he rode a wave of popularity and goodwill from Mainers who fondly remember his turn as their state's governor to instant front-runner status, immediately chasing one Democratic party aspirant, current Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree out of the race. From there, King appeared to have the inside track to Snowe's seat, but from the outset, he made a puzzling decision: he told Maine voters that he wasn't going to caucus with either party, if elected.

As Alex Pareene endeavored to explain, "Unfortunately, that's just not really how being in the Senate works."

"You see," Pareene wrote, "if you don't caucus with either party, you don't get committee assignments, and the committees are where the Senate actually does what little 'legislating' work it manages to get done." And for King, the fact that he was running as the guy who was so independent that he would sit in his Senate office all day and let the other 99 members shape legislation sort of gave the lie to his claim that he wanted to be "the most powerful voice for Maine possible."

Well, wouldn't you know, voters in Maine seem to be tiring of King's schtick. This is reflected in today's round of numbers from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP), which finds the Maine Senate race to be "much closer than expected, with independent Angus King leading with 43% to 35% for Republican Charlie Summers, and 14% for Democrat Cynthia Dill."

This raises the question: is it reaching the point where King may need to more explicitly say he's going to organize as a Democrat if he wants to win this race? Per PPP:

It's reaching the point where King may need to more explicitly say he's going to organize as a Democrat if he wants to win this race. King is winning only 13% of the Republican vote at this point, but he's losing 26% of the Democratic vote to Dill. Among those already voting for King 64% want him to caucus with the Democrats if he's elected to only 9% who want him to side with the Republicans and 27% who are undecided. So he has more to gain by bringing Democrats voting for Dill into the fold than he does to lose by antagonizing his small number of Republican leaning supporters.

The good news, if you are King, is that you are quite obviously much more amenable to the policies of the Democratic Senate caucus than you are to those advanced by the Republican one. This has been rather exhaustively documented by the New York Times' Jonathan Weisman:

Which side Mr. King leans toward is not so obscure. He thinks the health care law was not ambitious enough. He would have voted for the stimulus and has no qualms about benefiting from it.

He will vote for Mr. Obama's re-election, and he offers serious doubts about Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee.

[...]

He opposes the prescription for Medicare in the House Republicans' budget as 'a recipe for a tremendous shift to the elderly of their health care costs.' And after a long conversation with Erskine B. Bowles, a chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, he said he was 'dating' -- but not marrying -- the deficit-reduction plan put forward by Mr. Bowles and former Senator Alan K. Simpson, a Republican. Taming the deficit without revenue increases 'isn't realistic,' he said.

In short, King is a bog-standard center-lefty Dem with a few progressive opinions on health care reform. This isn't anything the Republicans particularly want in their caucus, and, in fact, they are making no overt effort to woo King. Rather, they have attacked his record. In fact, as Michael McAuliff reported back in July, the National Republican Senatorial Committee "took the unusual step ... of touting the press release of" the Democratic nominee, State Sen. Cynthia Dill, urging Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) to support her bid.

The GOP just don't want the guy. So there's really no point, none whatsoever, for King to continue to cling to his weird and unnecessary stance against caucusing with the Democrats. Unless he's holding out for a primo parking space on Capitol Hill, or something, King is getting high on his own supply and needs to get grounded. Someone -- anyone! -- who cares about Angus King and wants to see him succeed needs to sit him down and explain what "caucusing" is and make him understand that it does not in any way threaten his desired "independence." If you want to help this man out, you can borrow this line from Pareene: "Caucusing with the Democrats does not force you take take marching orders from Harry Reid, as anyone who has paid attention to the news over the last five years or so should know by now."

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Romney's '47 Percent' Comments Spreading Poison Downticket

Jason Linkins   |   September 19, 2012    2:13 PM ET

The wide release of Mitt Romney's remarks about the "47 percent" of the country who the GOP presidential nominee says he'll "never convince" to "take personal responsibility and care for their lives" has largely led to a philosophical discussion over whether it will hurt or help Romney's chances in November.

But downticket, Romney's fellow Republicans -- specifically those who find themselves in tight races -- are finding his remarks to be toxic. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who is in a tight reelection battle against Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), had emerged as the favorite of late, owing to Berkley getting caught up in an ethics investigation. But this donor party video has forced Heller to put some distance between himself and Romney, with Heller insisting that he has a “very different view of the world” than his party's standard-bearer. Rosalind S. Helderman of the Washington Post captures Heller's remarks:

“Keep in mind, I have five brothers and sisters. My father was an auto mechanic. My mother was a school cook. I have a very different view of the world,” Heller said. “And as United States Senator, I think I represent everyone, and every vote’s important. Every vote’s important in this race. I don’t write off anybody.”

Heller is now the third GOP Senate candidate to be affected by the practical, political fallout from Romney's remarks. Earlier this week, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) -- whose race against Elizabeth Warren has perhaps the most noticeably populist overtones -- split with Romney over his remarks in a statement from which Heller seems to have partially cribbed:

That’s not the way I view the world. As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in. Too many people today who want to work are being forced into public assistance for lack of jobs.

Brown followed the lead of his fellow New England Republican Linda McMahon, a candidate for Senate in Connecticut -- who, it should be noted, was for Romney's "47%" rhetoric before she was against it -- and Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.).

The disowning of Romney's remarks has not been limited to those seeking office in 2012. New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez (R) has also rebuked Romney's argument. "We have a lot of people that are at the poverty level in New Mexico, but they count just as much as anybody else,” Martinez said. “There is a net that does allow them to be caught and taken care of, whether it be through medical services, whether it be food services, whether it be with funding for apartments, for housing ... I think, certainly the fact that New Mexico provides that safety net is a good thing." Martinez will not be up for reelection until 2014, but she was a Romney endorser, a key speaker at the Republican National Convention, and was considered to be in the running for Romney's vice presidential selection.

Conservatives more oriented to the national horserace, of course, have been divided over whether Romney's remarks necessitate a "denunciation," followed by an "intervention" -- as Peggy Noonan implies -- or if they present him with a "golden opportunity," as Rush Limbaugh has suggested. When you move downticket, however, it becomes clear that Republican candidates in tight races don't have the time to spend litigating the matter -- especially at a time when the GOP is seeing its chances at reclaiming a Senate majority start to slip.

Said Heller, “I just don’t want to make it a habit of having to respond to comments made by other campaigns."

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Will A Gaffe Be A 2012 Campaign-Killer? Political Science Says 'No'

Jason Linkins   |   September 18, 2012    4:45 PM ET

The pointed question, shouted at Mitt Romney in Poland, that more or less sums up the 2012 campaign season, is "What about your gaffes?" Well, what about them? In the wake of the release of Mitt Romney's donor party video, there's been a lot of breathless talk about Romney's remarks therein being the death knell of his campaign hopes. Bloomberg's Josh Barro bravely offered the firmest conjecture: "You can mark my prediction now: A secret recording from a closed-door Mitt Romney fundraiser, released today by David Corn at Mother Jones, has killed Mitt Romney's campaign for president."

Look, it would be nice if political successes and failures could all be traced back to some frozen moment on the campaign trail instead of a complicated combination of economic factors, overall campaign management, on-the-ground organization, and voters brought to the polls to make a simple choice that sums up their values and aspirations at the place where the personal and political intersect.

But it's very, very possible to overstate the effect of so-called gaffes, and in times such as these, I look to people like The Monkey Cage's John Sides to dispel the charged air with some sensible political science. And Sides' numbers suggest that the big 2012 "gaffes" aren't moving the needle. Per Sides: "No discernible or certainly consequential movement because of Obama's two 'gaffes.' The only movement after Romney's comments about the Libya attack is in his favor, thanks largely to the probably inevitable tightening after Obama's convention bump."

He has a graph that will finally make this clear.

gaffes and polls

From this perspective, the story of the race seems pretty by-the-book. Obama enjoys a fairly consistent, fairly small lead over Romney. Romney narrowed the gap toward the end of August. Obama bounced it wide open some time after. Now we're back to the narrow Obama lead. (As the Washington Post's Aaron Blake reports, "the bounce that Obama got from the convention is essentially gone.") Those "gaffes" aren't having the sort of impact that justifies their hype.

Of course, campaigns that make a lot of mistakes tend to lose, and since Romney has clearly been pulled into this discussion over his donor party remarks against his desires, he's certainly vulnerable now to the sorts of errors you can make when you lose control of the conversation. And as Kevin Drum points out, Romney's control of that conversation could come to be lost by his nominal allies: "The damage Romney did to himself by privately pandering to this sentiment is bad enough already. But the most unhinged segment of his supporters is going to make it even worse, repeating his argument endlessly in far cruder terms than Romney did."

Conversely, there's always the chance that Team Obama Re-Elect overplays whatever hand they now think they've been dealt. But the larger point is this: Just as they say "it's not the crime that kills you, but the coverup," it's not the gaffe that kills you, but everything that comes after. And from there, you get into unmeasureable hypotheticals. Per Sides:

The best argument you can make about these gaffes is sort of a woolly counterfactual: "Well, if it hadn't been for the release of Romney's video today, Romney would have been able to accomplish X, Y, and Z, which would have helped him win the election." Like any counterfactual, there is some plausibility -- yes, Romney would rather talk about the unemployment rate than these comments.

But like any counterfactual, it's predicated on assumptions about what the world would have looked like without these comments.

Maybe Romney's "47 percent" remarks will prove to be some sort of "game changer." But go read Sides' whole post on the matter -- as you'll see, there's no 2008 precedent for a candidacy-scuttling "gaffe" either.

READ THE WHOLE THING:
Mitt Romney and that 47% [The Monkey Cage]

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