09/12/2012 01:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Election Monitor: Why This Election Comes Down to Two Days in October

Several national polls released this week show that President Obama received a small but meaningful bounce after the conventions. The bounce -- in the 3-5 point range -- is within the median for convention bounces since 1964. The problem for Republicans is that Romney got no bounce from his convention. In fact, his vote share likely shrunk a point or two in the last two weeks. While the Republican convention may have strengthened Romney's position with the base, it did little to expand his coalition. The momentum from "You didn't build that" has been halted. However, we see nothing in the data yet to suggest this is anything but a dead heat. For all the hand wringing over the GOP convention and the Romney campaign they are in a dead heat with an incumbent President with 55 days to go. When you look at likely voters in key swing states, this thing is truly 50/50. Here is our take as of 12 a.m. EST:
  • The murder of Ambassador Stevens and the unrest in Libya will thrust both candidates into the foreign policy fray. It will be very interesting to see how each handles the coming hours and days and how much the media -- and ultimately voters -- focuses on the issue.
  • Look for a higher level of advertising spend from the Romney campaign in key battleground states over the next two weeks. History has shown that the candidate who is clearly in the lead by mid to late September will likely be the winner in November. That doesn't mean things can't change in October -- they can. But sentiment will start to firm up in the next two weeks. The Romney campaign has a $60 million cash-on-hand advantage, and they should use it now. Team Obama defined Romney in the spring using their cash advantage; the Romney campaign should not wait until October. They need to change the dynamic before October 1.
  • The two biggest dates of the campaign are October 3rd and October 5th. The first debate will be held on Wednesday, October 3rd at the University of Denver at 9 p.m. EST. For three reasons this will be far and away the most important debate:
  1. It is the first and therefore, unless there is a major blunder, is likely to be the one that sets the image of Romney in stone.
  2. We really do not believe that the other two will matter if Romney has a poor debate performance here. Romney has to win this debate pure and simple.
  3. This one is purely on domestic policy, i.e. the economy. If Romney can't win this one, he is unlikely to win the other two, barring a miscue by the President.
  • On October 5th at 8:30 a.m. EST the Bureau of Labor Statistics will release the September unemployment numbers. This will be the most impactful announcement of the campaign. If the unemployment rate goes up it could be devastating for the president's reelection chances. Similarly, if it goes down -- especially if it goes below 8 percent -- it may pretty much secure an Obama victory in November.
  • Neither convention was a game-changer. Although Romney saw a bump in favorability, Obama had an overall vote share gain. The net result is that while the last three or four national polls show a slight Obama advantage, we are essentially still looking at very similar head-to-head poll results that we saw three weeks ago. Our analysis shows Obama with a 2 point lead nationally but still below 50 percent.
  • It's safe to say that the Democrats had the more successful convention , despite having the higher bar. Democrats managed to project a sense of optimism while still acknowledging the country's economic struggles. Their speeches -- especially President Clinton's and First Lady Michelle Obama's -- managed to make an effective case for President Obama's reelection by talking about his values and how his first three and a half years have laid the foundation for greater things to come. We'll see if this resonates with undecided voters, but at the very least the speeches were affecting and well-delivered.
  • Republicans were only moderately successful at humanizing their candidate; not even Ann Romney could flesh out a more authentic picture of her husband. Probably the best aspect of the GOP convention was the short biographical film about the candidate, which was quickly overshadowed by Clint Eastwood and his chair - which was found to be the "highlight" of the convention in a recent Pew poll. Regardless, making Mitt Romney an acceptable alternative to the President wasn't a high bar, and if Republicans succeeded it was just barely. The convention was certainly not the home run it could have been, but this is ultimately the fault of the candidate.
  • In fact, neither presidential candidate hit anywhere close to a home run in their speeches. Clinton or Rice would get an award for best convention speech far before either of the actual candidates , which pretty much sums up the race.
A look at the electoral map suggests that Romney has little margin for error moving forward. If you look at the RCP margins on all of the battleground states, Obama is ahead in virtually all of them, save for Missouri and North Carolina (which shouldn't really be a battleground state, anyway). To be sure, most of these numbers are within the margin of error; that having been said, it speaks volumes that the President is in the position he's in when you consider the country's economic environment. To significantly move the dial in the next 55 days, Romney is going to need to win the first debate, use his spending advantage now, and hope for a bad jobs report.
  • As we have been hammering home, the first debate will be critical -- far more so than it was in 2008. Unlike John McCain, who at that point had very little hope of defeating President Obama, Mitt Romney remains within striking distance. Also, Obama was perceived as "the clear winner" on the economy in the first 2008 debate, but obviously that history will be tough to repeat in 2012.
  • A strong debate performance from Romney could help to reverse the perception (shared by much of the inside-the-beltway chattering class) that President Obama is beginning to pull away. Romney is capable of a strong debate performance; the problem is that he's also capable of a terrible performance, so which Romney shows up will be crucial. President Obama is the steadier debate performer but if the "good Romney" shows up -- and Romney is most comfortable when talking about the economy, which will be the focus of the first debate -- he could make a strong positive impression on those wavering undecideds.
  • At the first presidential debate we can expect to see some provoking of Romney on budget specifics and "running numbers." The Obama campaign has been pushing this narrative and it seems to be resonating, especially with Americans' exaggerated valuation of fiscal responsibility this election, so the Romney camp will need to figure out how to deflect these types of attacks.

My thanks to Pete Ventimiglia, Kelsey Cohen and Allison Quigley for their valuable thoughts and insights. Follow us on Twitter: @Steve_Lombardo.

Please note that the author was an advisor to the Romney for President campaign in 2008, but is not affiliated with any campaign in 2012.