It's only been three weeks since my last comprehensive election post, but the news in recent weeks has increased in level of interest, and I see movement that may prove to be decisive.
President Obama and his allies may be outspent, but their ads seem to be carrying more weight, to be cutting more deeply. The framing of Mitt Romney as a rich exploiter has occurred, without much fanfare, and it may be very difficult to undo. Romney and his allies cried "Unfair!", but this is an election, not tiddlywinks, and Obama's team plays for keeps. Lest anyone forget, the combination of Obama the candidate and Axelrod/Plouffe as campaign directors produced the most stunningly successful results in the history of all electoral campaigns in 2008--taking a little-known first-term Senator, and a mixed-race black to boot, all the way to a substantial electoral college victory, and those folks are all back, in full force. If nothing else, Romney and his allies should realize by now that they are playing in the major leagues, and they will need to raise their game, which has been all duck-and-dodge since clinching the Republican nomination.
Romney's problems, which seem surprisingly insoluble, center on two issues. First is the mendacious position that he "retired retroactively" from Bain Capital in 2002, so is not responsible for the unseemly activities (outsourcing/downsizing) which that organization completed in the 1999-2002 period, when he was still CEO and sole shareholder of the company. The quote comes from Ed Gillespie, a prominent Republican spokesman on one of the talk shows, and I would say it was more "retired radioactively", because Romney's Bain tie is now glowing with danger. The second is his refusal to release more than a year or two of his tax returns; it is not a legal issue, and I doubt that his earlier returns, once revealed (as they probably will be, one way or another), will show any illegalities. It's more that it fits into the picture being formed of Romney as a 1-percenter, a guy who has profited during our lost decade of economic stagnation through the worst kind of unproductive, but lucrative, trickle-up cashing in and has stashed it all away in innumerable tax dodges. One can only guess that the reason he can't talk his way out of his difficulties is because there is too much truth behind the accusations.
Romney will still have chances to put the ball back into Obama's court: he can undermine the level of support from those leaning toward the incumbent through attack ads (just what Obama & Co. have done recently, though Romney's haven't quite hit the mark yet), and he may be able to exploit certain issues that will work against Obama from the point of view of true independent voters through ads, speeches, debates. To name a few names, "Fast and Furious" (guns), "Solyndra" (government waste), Barclay's (individuals in the English bank informed Tresury Secy. Geithner about the company's complicity in efforts to fix the price of the critical Libor benchmark rate too low in 2008, but he took no steps to end it), and "Occupy"/ "Medical Marijuana" (some of Obama's unsavory fellow travelers); these themes could resonate with conservative white swing voters and put Obama on the defensive.
In the meantime, though, my sense is stronger than before that Obama holds a lead, particularly in the Electoral College, that is just as likely to grow as to shrink. His rating vs. Romney's on intrade.com has moved up to about 58-38, with about 4% for various chaotic outcomes.
The Other, Very Important Stuff
I continue to believe that the most significant outcome of this election will be a broad, non-partisan rejection of the unlimited spending on negative campaign ads, and the corrupting and poisonous effect all the fundraising has on our political environment. The movement that excites me most is a push for the Fair Elections Act (which would provide effective public financing of Federal campaigns), combined with a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. I urge that voters demand a Norquist-type pledge from the candidates to support these changes.
Meanwhile, the most suspenseful national electoral contest of the year, the battle for control of the Senate, appears to be taking a turn in the Republicans' favor. In general, the problem is that the Democrats have to play defense in too many states, and they have too few chances to pick up seats. Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Virginia are all states in which the Democrats' chances of holding their seats are 50-50 or worse, and there are several more in which the Republicans can mount a credible threat, while there are really only two states (Nevada and Massachusetts) in which there is a good likelihood of picking up a seat (and one more--Indiana--in which they have an outside shot at it). In Nevada, that chance is fading with the Democratic candidate, Rep. Shelley Berkley, fending off ethics allegations. Recent polling results indicate that two seats the Democrats absolutely must hold, Ohio (Sherrod Brown) and Florida (Bill Nelson), are not looking safe under heavy Republican spending pressure.
In terms of the Intrade.com quotes for the nine different possible outcomes in Washington (Dem vs. Republican control of President/Senate/House, with Independents caucusing with the parties for control counting in the results--the ninth is some sort of chaos in which one or more of the outcomes is unclear), the two outcomes considered most probable are a Republican sweep (30% likelihood) and Democrats holding the Presidency and the Senate but not the House (29%). The one on the rise, though, going up from 17.5% to 20% in the last two weeks is a Democratic President but Republican control of both houses of Congress. At this point, that would be the one on which I would put my money.
The final subject I want to bring up is the shaggy-dog story of Romney's search for a running mate. There was a strong rumor last week that he would name that person early, to break up the negative buzz about his plutocratic ways, but that was unfounded. Instead, Romney is taking a short international tour and will try to reset the general election campaign upon his return. The two leading candidates in the "veepstakes" are midwestern brothers in boredom, Tim Pawlenty and Rob Portman. My longer-shot pick would be another Midwestern white guy, the slightly-less-boring Paul Ryan, who would bring some interest to the issues debate (though it would not assist Romney's pivot to the center); the real game-changer would be the presentation of a revitalized Marco Rubio candidacy as a strong bid to capture Florida, without which Romney's campaign is doomed.
To summarize, my dear reader, it's basically about three states: Florida, Virginia, and Ohio, and the Presidential and Senate races in those three. If the Democrats sweep the six contests it will be a good--or great--result; if the Republicans sweep them, it will be a huge result (though technically it may still be very possible for Romney to lose the election even if he takes all three, I'd suggest that other states--like Iowa, or Colorado, or New Hampshire, or one of the upper Midwest--would also be coming along in that case, enough for him to win). The most likely outcome will be a split decision in those six, which won't be a great result for anyone, including the American people.