It was all going so perfectly for President Barack Obama.
He had painted his opponent, former Gov. Mitt Romney, as an out-of-touch rich guy with elevators for his wife's multiple Cadillacs and bank accounts throughout the Caribbean. Romney had no plan—or at least none he was willing to discuss with voters. He was bellicose and callow on foreign policy. And The Groups—women, Hispanics, African-Americans, union members, public employees— were lined up so solidly behind the president he absolutely could not lose.
And then, on October 3 at about 9:04 p.m., Romney took to the stage in Denver and reset the campaign. He was not out of touch at all. He made sense. He had solid ideas, a sense of hope. He connected. He laughed. He seemed confident. The president looked down at his notes. He came across as not wanting to be there. He offered little reason to give him another term.
That night was followed closely by Vice President Joe Biden's neighing, braying debate performance—an effort only a deeply partisan Democrat could've loved. Then there was the Al Smith Dinner, where Romney seemed uncommonly gracious, sensible, and downright funny.
The cascade of cognitive dissonance these Romney appearances unleashed on the nation was like the waves slashing the coast because of Hurricane Sandy. They destroyed the landscape in their path and left something decidedly different, something Democrats now recognize as a true and serious threat to the president's re-election hopes. He can lose, and they know it.
And if Obama does, if he becomes only the sixth president in the last 100 years to lose re-election, he will have no one to blame but himself. He created a Romney so far removed from the real Romney that when voters saw the real Romney they realized they had been had. And voters don't like to be had.
It is worth considering how bad things were going for Romney in September. The Republican National Convention had given him little if any bump. Clint Eastwood and his empty chair had been its most memorable moment. Then, Bill Clinton had dazzled the Democratic National Convention with his speech that deftly laid all the blame on George W. Bush and all the credit for what meager recovery existed on President Obama. Soon after, there was the '47 percent tape,' in which Romney laid out his election strategy to a group of donors only to find that a video clip from the event was posted on YouTube and was dug up by Jimmy Carter's grandson to be handed over to the Democrats.
It was enough to have Michael Cohen of the New York Daily News drinking Obama Kool-Aid by the keg.
The two overarching terms that have come to describe the Romney campaign to date are inept and incompetent. They have a candidate who is breaking records for campaign gaffes and misstatements and who also appears to lack the basic discipline needed to adhere to one consistent political message. These aren't problems you can fix overnight.
This isn't to say there is no chance that Romney could win. Obviously anything is possible. It's just that as each day goes on it is becoming harder and harder to imagine any scenario in which he does.
To be fair, earlier in that piece Cohen had allowed for the possibility of a knockout punch in a debate. But he had summarily dismissed it.
Obama could certainly have a bad debate moment or a gaffe, but if you're counting on no-drama Obama to dramatically drop the ball and say or do something so stupid that it causes his poll numbers to plummet, you might as well hope for a lightning strike.
The president may not have felt the lightning, but it took just moments after the end of the debate for him to hear the thunder. Nearly 70 percent of those watching decided he had lost. Frank Luntz, the pollster who conducts focus groups during campaigns, said he'd never seen a group move so dramatically toward a candidate than that night. Even Chris Mathews had to admit the president had been pummeled.
The race was on again, and Romney knew it. He even took a victory lap the next day, making a surprise visit to a CPAC meeting in Colorado, where he received a hero's welcome from conservatives who the day before doubted his efficacy. Suddenly, the president's firewall—his clear path to 270 electoral votes—was under a real threat. Ohio tightened. Virginia, Florida, New Hampshire, and North Carolina tilted toward Romney. Even Wisconsin and Iowa were suddenly in play.
Mr. Gaffe went from stepping on rakes to stepping up his attacks, and America seemed to fall in line. Now, we're seeing the end games, and they look quite different from what President Obama expected a month ago.
It's so different he felt compelled to put out his own plan—a 20-page coloring book full of warmed-over proposals and ideas with no chance of passage. Who does this? Who interjects this into the conversation now, in the closing days of a campaign when it can't possibly be received positively by any but the most hard-core supporters? Not a confident candidate; that much is certain.
"Maybe it's not too late, but wouldn't it have been cool to have a great document put out the day after the convention when everyone was riding really high, instead of now," asked polling analyst Erica Seifert. "Romney came out in Denver and he didn't seem to be that caricature they painted. That's where there's a need to define Obama. Contrast does not a re-election make."
The strategy in Chicago changed because the narrative changed. Panic set in. Fall guys were identified. How on earth can Nate Silver say the president has a 74.6 percent chance of winning at this point? Did his poll analysis breed overconfidence? Did President Clinton overdo it in Charlotte? Did Clinton undermine President Obama to clear his wife's path to the White House in 2016?
It all turned the night of the debate. But as Fox News' Chris Stirewalt notes, it took more than that phenomenal debate performance in Denver to bring the race to even. In fact, it took a flawed campaign strategy on the part of Team Obama. The Chicago strategy—bury the opponent in negative ads and character assassination, then come on all nice at the end—was found wanting.
Relying on The Groups—women, Hispanics, college students, gays, government workers, etc.—was not sufficient. The president neglected to offer a defense of his first term or, until this perfunctory effort of recent days, to sketch a positive vision for the future. And now, the voters who don't tune in until the end, who don't follow every dot and tittle of the primaries, who didn't watch the nearly 20 debates among Republican candidates, have taken their measure of the candidates and found that Romney looks presidential and Obama petulant.
Today, Obama is at 47 percent ( … right where Romney said he would be in that infamous tape). That's about as low as he can go. That means almost all the independents—on whom this election always was supposed to turn—have gone to Romney.
If Romney ultimately becomes the 45th president of the United States, the political set will be talking about Obama's flawed campaign strategy for decades. He had a disastrous Plan A—and no Plan B.