With the Republican National Convention on the verge of convening, it seems appropriate to pause and do our own tracking of where the presidential race stands today and where it might move, depending upon the winds of Mitt Romney's campaign.
This race has been within the margin of error for four months. Nothing has really moved it at all. Not half a billion dollars in combined expenditures by all sides; not Romney's vice-presidential pick of Paul Ryan; not any speech by either President Obama or Romney. Not even Vice President Joe Biden opening his mouth.
Why? I would speculate there are three reasons. First, the country is incredibly divided and polarized, with few folks truly independent and undecided (some estimate there only about 5 percent of the country are truly swing voters in this election). So this race will trade in only a tiny margin and be very hard to move in big swings.
Also, there are major conflicting dynamics at work for each campaign indicating that these candidates, if they weren't running against each other, would be unelectable. On the Democratic side, there's the perception by a vast majority of voters that the country is on the wrong track and the incredible dissatisfaction with Obama's handling of the economy. For the Republicans, there's Romney's personal likeability being so low.
Finally, over the last ten years or so, the ability of campaigns to affect the overall narrative and dynamics of a presidential race has greatly diminished. Paid advertising, the campaigns' major expenditure, has become nearly useless and a total waste of money. Voters don't trust it and instead are looking for signals from sources they deem more credible. In a race like this, the big moments -- the ones that matter -- can move the polls. And we are about to have one of those.
This convention provides an opportunity and a possibility for Romney to grasp this moment. The only way he can do this is improve his personal standing with voters. He needs to get them to see him more positively as a leader and get them to trust that he has the their interests at heart. He needs to connect at a gut level with voters and shift their opinion of him from negative to at least neutral, if not positive. His campaign is making a mistake if they use this convention to primarily attack Obama. They need to make it about Mitt Romney.
The negative political environment that can beat Obama is in place; the only thing preventing that from happening is how Romney is perceived. If he can change that dynamic more positively, then he'll take a lead. Interestingly, he's the person who actually might have the most control over this race's direction. The president, after all, can't really change the direction of the country at this point, and perceptions of him are pretty locked in. If Romney is able to succeed, and the Obama campaign's onslaught diminishes in effectiveness, he could take control of this race.
As the convention unfolds, we'll see if Romney is able to do that, or if the Democrats are able to keep on their full-court press. If he can't, his next real shot is the first presidential debate at the beginning of October. Either way, as clouds cover Tampa, Romney needs to put a little daylight between himself and the president.
Originally published on NationalJournal.com