For as long a time as your Speculatroners have been dutifully cataloguing the damage that the primary process has been doing to Mitt Romney's brand, we have been cautioning you to underrate the long-term effects of the grueling primary season. And even as President Barack Obama has stacked up some occasionally gaudy results in various polls -- and Obama had what amounted to a banner week last week -- we've maintained that eventually the race would tighten. And the Obama campaign evidently felt the same way: for the past few weeks, it has been feeling waves of concern that its base of donors and supporters were settling into an assumption that the president's re-election was a done deal.
So, we're assuming that having said all that, all of you were among the least surprised people in America when the latest Gallup tracking poll had Mitt Romney ahead by two points, followed by a number of various poll results that suggested a wide variance as to who was up and who was down. All of which suggests a very close race is in the offing. Welcome to the general election, folks!
If you've a mind to follow the race closely, the shift to the general election means that you'll have new noise to detune as the contest escalates. Welcome, for example, to the period where pseudo-events dominate news coverage -- the time where a CNN pundit or a former rock star can say something that causes the media to stampede in the direction of Acid Canyon.
And if you follow the race closely, you're going to run up on a glut of polls and polling data from now until we all have to start preparing for the Mayan Apocalypse. There's a good chance that most of you have already encountered some useful guide on how to read polls and polling now that we've switched from the primary stage of the election to the general.
Nate Silver, for instance, offered a fairly comprehensive guide this week. His advice -- "be patient," remember the distinctions between registered voters and likely voters, keep an eye on economic indicators -- is well-heeded. We agree that keeping an eye on polling averages is the key to following the state of the race. One caveat: remember in these early days, some of the state averages won't be based on a lot of current polling, so don't draw conclusions too quickly.
Additionally, we'd remind you that even though you'll hear about nationwide head-to-head polls, you should remember that the election will be decided in the electoral college, and that a handful of battleground states will determine which way the race swings.
For example, in the news this week, you'll hear that Romney is up by two in the Gallup tracking poll and up by two in New Hampshire. Which result is more revealing? At the moment, it's the Gallup. That one result in New Hampshire is an outlier poll that happens to be the only one in the field, so far, in April. But as more polling gets conducted in New Hampshire, that polling average will have more and more salience -- especially if the national tracking continues to predict a close race -- because New Hampshire is one of those key swing states whose electoral votes Obama will want to retain.
Similarly, when you're looking at Obama's approval ratings, remember that while the nationwide result tells a general picture, the approval ratings in places like Virginia, Ohio, Colorado and Pennsylvania tell you so much more.
And above all, remember that there's a lot of political action happening on the ground that doesn't get reported. How well is Mitt Romney doing getting people to show up and make phone calls? Are those Obama field offices packed with as many enthusiastic volunteers are they were in 2008? This is where the fervor for a candidate can be best measured.
Yes, we know that for a long while, the story has been about GOP infighting over who would eventually be the party's nominee. A ghost mailer in Iowa from the Rick Santorum campaign that went out this week serves as a last reminder of that era. "It truly frightens me to think what’ll happen if Mitt Romney is the nominee," the mailer -- which had been paid for and for which distribution was arranged before Santorum dropped out of the race -- sums up the argument that Romney's GOP competitors had been making all along. And as long as other candidates were in that race, providing voters with the dream of an alternative, everyone who was inclined to not like Romney had the leeway to do so.
But we're now in the part of the election cycle where Santorum's forthcoming communications will read, "It truly frightens me to think what’ll happen if Barack Obama wins re-election." And so, the formerly disaffected are coming home, and the "not-Romneys" are joining up to be part of the "not-Obama" movement. As our own Mark Blumenthal pointed out this week, the bases have aligned themselves behind their candidates. Remember all those primaries this past year, where pundits alleged that Romney's inability to win more than [x] percent was a troubling omen for the general? Yeah, you can forget that now.
In fact, the hot new wave of speculation is about whether the current election is going to be a "referendum" election or a "choice" election. Team Romney will hope for the former, and argue that a greater economic recovery would be possible under his technocratic management. Team Obama will make the latter case, and suggest that a Romney administration would take the country back to the bad old days. There are historical examples in which incumbents have successfully bucked the conventional wisdom on the "referendum" election, but basic political science favors the notion that this election is likely to be predicated on Obama's first term.
Of course, as the election season changes, so will your Speculatron. In the coming weeks, we're going to transition away from covering the dwindling primary contenders and get on a general election footing. That means that we'll also be providing coverage of key downticket races in the Senate, the House, and the states.
And we'll be sending readers to further flung places as well and exposing readers to the work of reporters who know their state's political culture like the back of their hand -- like Jon Ralston of the Las Vegas Sun, Adam Smith of the St. Petersburg Times, and Daniel Bice of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Naturally, if you've got a favorite political reporter or think a race in your area deserves more coverage, we want to hear about it.
But for the moment, we'll slowly wind down the primary season. This week, Mitt Romney struggled with secrecy, Barack Obama fought distractions, Ron Paul went to war with Alaska, Gary Johnson challenged the two-party frame and Newt Gingrich skirmished with Antarctic waterfowl. To find out who won their battles and who lost, please feel free to enter the Speculatron for the week of April 20, 2012.
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