The other day, after the debate, I got one of those Concerned Notes I sometimes receive from liberal friends who go into panic mode when something happens they don't like and polls show an election closer than they prefer. (This contrasts with conservatives who, as recent news demonstrates, simply discount the reality of the polls, and make up their own.) After ranting about the president letting Mitt Romney slide by with changed positions and made-up facts, he added, "I can't believe Barack Obama is up by such a slim margin."
Now, to be fair, most elections have slim margins, and Mr. Obama didn't have an effective debate performance, so concern is always understandable. But life doesn't exist in a vacuum, and you have to step back and look at the fullness that surrounds just "a number." And so, I wrote back to talk my friend down from the ledge.
To start with, the margin isn't as slim as my friend believed. Polls differ, but President Obama is generally up by four points. That's actually big. To put it in another perspective - I asked my friend what if Barack Obama was down by four points? Would he say that's only a slim margin and not be troubled? He said he'd be in panicked hell. Indeed, that's precisely what we've been seeing from conservative analysts - George Will, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, even Rupert Murdoch.
Mind you, the four points will change. Down - and up. But right now, four points is a lot. Yet, importantly, it's also meaningless - after all, we don't elect the president by general vote. So, you have to look at the swing states. And President Obama is up in every one of them. Some small margins, but in the most important (Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida), up significantly.
There's another factor: the issues are long-since established, , and we know what the candidates stand for. (Or, at least we did with Mr. Romney before the debate, sort of.) So to change that four point margin, it comes down to the candidates themselves.
Mitt Romney, however, not only has a 41% likability, but the more that people see of Mr. Romney, the less they like him. When you start from "unlikable," it becomes difficult for people to suddenly start liking you more.
And Paul Ryan, despite the early perception that Republicans had for him, has become negligible. He's a local congressman with zero foreign policy experience, who has only passed two bills, one of which was renaming a post office. Worse, when questioned about the sole reason he's on the ticket, his budget plan, he has literally said "we haven't run the numbers yet"! And worse still, because his plan cuts Medicare he was booed when addressing AARP. Nor can Mr. Ryan talk about social issues, because he's too closely tied to Todd Akin, co-sponsoring "legitimate rape" bills. And he keeps getting caught with serial lying about fake marathon times, asking for stimulus funds, being a disciple of the atheist Ayn Rand, and describing a factory closing under George Bush.
That leaves trying to attack President Obama. The problem is that Republicans have been calling him a Socialist-Nazi-Muslim-terrorist-Kenyan for five years. And the public has shown it doesn't care, because Mr. Obama has a 54% likability - and is up by four points.
Yet Mitt Romney has far bigger problems.
First, there was the major Romney blunder, blasting the president about the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens while the Libyan riots were ongoing - and before the facts were even in. What happened next was unprecedented - mainstream, liberal and conservative pundits all slammed Mr. Romney for being spectacularly irresponsible, and having his facts and timeline wrong.
Worse, it established for the press how Mr. Romney mistakes fit a larger pattern. Already, I've heard reports that tied together previous foreign policy gaffes - his disastrous European trip and his ridiculed-comment on Russia being our #1 enemy - with this inept Libya comment, establishing his inexperience and unpreparedness. It opened the door for the press actually fact-checking his debate sleight-of-hand and finding him coming up quite short.
And none of this even addresses the Romney Tape. (Something that, for reasons that defy logic, the president didn't do either at the debate. But that doesn't make it cease to exist.)
It's not just that Mitt Romney insulted 47% of Americans - but he also gave terrorist advice to Iran, showed he didn't know what a "dirty bomb" was, and argued for walking away from peace in the Middle East. A Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that the public view Mr. Romney's hidden-tape comments unfavorably 54-32%.
And for all this, there's still The Enthusiasm Gap.
Understand: enthusiasm in an election is not about merely who is most enthralled or outraged - but who actually goes to the polls. And votes. It's the whole, critical "get out the vote" thing.
There's been a certain belief that although Republicans don't care greatly for Mitt Romney, they hate Barack Obama SO much that they're enthusiastic about going to the polls. Democrats, this belief continues, are a little disappointed in the president and therefore aren't as driven to vote. And Mr. Romney doing well at the first debate has revved up the conservative base.
And there's some truth to all this in theory. But -
I don't think the theory holds.
By all accounts, delegates at the Republican Convention sat bored. A study showed that the name "Romney" was spoken at the GOP Convention only one-third as often as "Obama" was mentioned at the Democratic Convention. Even Rush Limbaugh has now apathetically dismissed the candidate, saying "I don't care who they put on the ticket, we're voting against Obama." Further, the co-chair of Mitt's Romney's national campaign just quit to become a banking lobbyist - and senate candidates have been distancing themselves from Mr. Romney. Conservative pundits have been so critical of Mitt Romney that his wife was on the radio telling them to "Stop it." And many of the upbeat points that Mr. Romney made at the debate were actually things that were contradictory to his previous statements, but also, in the long run, anathema to the Far Right.
Hating the other guy might help stir a party's base, but in the end it's "liking your candidate" that drives voters to the polls. You're marking your ballot FOR someone. And if Republicans are unenthusiastic enough about Mitt Romney that the voice of the party is saying, "Forget who our candidate is," and worse, that many Republicans dislike and don't trust him (especially now that his debate appearance reversed conservative principals) - then you have a big problem with that enthusiasm needed to get your voters to the polls. After all, when the dust clears, the Mitt Romney standing there is still that same Mitt Romney.
Contrast that with the Democratic base mobilizing over the past three months. Fundraising has now far-exceeded that of Republicans. The renowned "get-out-the-vote" effort has been mobilized and ramped up heavily - while at the same time the GOP shockingly just fired its only voter registration group in the swing states (for improprieties) and is left with, literally...nothing. The Democratic Convention had higher ratings; John Kerry, Joe Biden, Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton all gave major speeches that got the base roaring - and Clinton is now himself hitting the campaign trail; and the president reminded Democrats why they've long supported him. Democrats are not only much more enthused for Mr. Obama right now than was presumed, but their aversion of the Far Right and Mitt Romney has been focused and intensified.
So, ultimately, that Enthusiasm Gap that was supposed to wildly favor Republicans this year is not only not the case but, since the conventions, enthusiasm and actually getting out the vote have been moving strongly to the Democratic side.
That leaves the only significant remaining hope for Republicans that Mitt Romney swamp President Obama in all three debates. And Mr. Romney did do better in the first one, and so he likely gained some of his party's enthusiasm back. But the problem is that when you perform well by saying things that you don't believe in, and have never said before, you've built your house on precarious sand and now have to defend these new "positions." Already, in fact, Wall Street has raised concerns about some of his startling assertions. And already the Romney campaign is reversing itself. But the much larger problem is that this isn't a "one debate" campaign. In my column last week, I noted that polls have shown that the more people see Mitt Romney, the less they like him. And that that's always been his biggest hurdle with having three debates. This has always been about "three debates." That's the very point. Consider: the second debate is a town hall format - and relating directly with the public ( that pesky "47%.") has never been - to put it politely - Mitt Romney's strength. ("I'm not sure about these cookies, they don't look like you made them," he so-warmly told a woman who brought him a gift.) But it has been Mr. Obama's; that's why he has such a high personal likability. And the third debate is on foreign policy - of which Mr. Romney has zero experience, not counting all of his many afore-mentioned gaffes. The president, on the other hand, has been Commander-in-Chief for four years.
But mainly, anyone who thinks that Barack Obama will be as laid-back in the remaining debates and not contradict Mitt Romney's "policy reversals" and looseness with the facts, nor not reference the 47%, women's rights, and 30 straight months of job growth is living in a land of wishful dreams.
For instance, the next time around, when Mitt Romney mentions a couple "details" of things he'd keep in healthcare, the president is not likely to remain politely silent, but remind people that that's not a healthcare program, and how on 60 Minutes the other day, Mr. Romney said he'd provide healthcare by the emergency room - THE worst and most expensive way to provide healthcare.
And Joe Biden, one of the country's leading expert on foreign affairs, and a man who, if anything, wears his heart more passionately on his sleeve than any politician in the U.S., will show Paul Ryan to be the empty shirt that he is.
Democrats can take nothing for granted, and must stay very aggressive, because this volatile world can change in a moment. The president did not have his best debate. But in the end, I always return to my "what if" gambit - what if the situation was reversed? What if Barack Obama was down four points, he had trashed 47% of the country, experts from his own party were criticizing his poorly-run campaign, he was behind in all the swing states, enthusiasm had dropped precipitously from its one-time high, his national co-chair had resigned, people didn't personally like him, and he had two debates upcoming for which he was far out of his depth? How would you feel?
How would you feel?
Especially when you also saw that unemployment had just dropped to its lowest figure in three years, and was down to 7.8%.
Democrats should obviously take nothing for granted. Anything unforeseen can happen. The election is not over.
But if roles were reversed, I think Democrats would be utterly freaked out. And they'd be right to be.
But the thing is - the roles are not reversed. That's actually the world facing Republicans.
And if I was a Republican, and I saw that other Republicans weren't yet freaked out, and worse, were even dancing over one, good debate - blindly ignoring that it threw overboard much of what I actually stood for and had little reality to support it...that would freak me out.
And I'd need to be talked down from the ledge.
Oh, by the way, after Wednesday's debate, Ipsos/Reuters took its own poll. Barack Obama was up by five points.