There's a lot of talk about the polling data in the presidential election. Most of it shows the race close, with President Barack Obama below the critical 50 percent mark. Several recent surveys show, as my bloleague Robert Schlesinger wrote here on Thomas Jefferson Street Friday, that independents—who likely hold "the keys to the kingdom" in the upcoming election—may be moving away from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in appreciable numbers, back towards the president.
It is still anybody's guess how the race will turn out, but the awful truth is that neither campaign is running as well as one might expect. Obama is mired in a record of poor performance, exemplified by the 42 straights months of the official unemployment rate being north of 8 percent. Romney has not yet hit on the issue or issues that would allow him to move ahead of the president and is still basing his campaign on not being "the other guy."
These numbers are, however, a deception. Polls that measure the attitude of "all adults" are not nearly as reliable as those of "registered voters." The data obtained from "registered voters" in turn is not as reliable as that taken from "likely voters" for the simple reason that all registered voters don't vote. It is also important to keep in mind that "likely voters" is a subjective term, meaning different pollsters have different ways of determining what it means.
At the end of the day it may all come down to the level of enthusiasm each candidate can generate among the electorate. On that score, say a number of measures, Romney is likely ahead.
"Republican-leaning voting blocs are more enthusiastic to vote this November," the folks at Resurgent Republic said Thursday, "which could be the deciding factor in a turnout election. As we head into the final campaign stretch, President Obama faces the unwelcoming reality that he must close the voter enthusiasm gap and improve his performance among key voting subgroups if he is to be successful in his bid for reelection."
A "turnout election" is one in which each side presses hard to get their strongest supporters to the polls with little concern for occasional voters and independents. A good example of such a contest was the 2004 race where President George W. Bush bested Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry—but not by anything resembling an impressive margin.
There is no guarantee, however, that the 2012 contest will be "a turnout election." To astute observers of American politics, it is starting to look more like 1980—when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter by impressive margins in both the popular vote and the electoral college—than 2004. One key indicator of this is the way in which the number of so-called swing states continues to grow, meaning that Obama will have to fight to keep states he won easily in 2008, like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and reflects that others he captured in that election, like Indiana and North Carolina, are already probably already firmly in the Romney column. When the enthusiasm gap is factored in, Romney could actually be headed for a blow out, no matter how improbable that may seem at this time.
"When looking at those voters who say they are extremely enthusiastic to vote in the presidential election," Resurgent Republic reported, "Republicans hold a double-digit advantage over Democrats, 62 to 49 percent, and the subgroups most likely to support Governor Romney register higher enthusiasm than those backing President Obama."
The reliable Republican voting blocs—Protestants, Evangelicals, and white men—score "above the median rate of those who are extremely enthusiastic to turnout," the group announced based on an analysis of the data it had collected. Democrats, on the other hand, have lots of problems in their base, with only African-American voters showing anything near the same level of excitement about Obama that they showed four years ago. Add to that the groups that are up for grabs, like Catholics—who are still reeling over the Obama administration's assault on religious liberty—and the results could be devastating for the president's party.
"The higher enthusiasm among Republicans overall will help shrink the traditional Democratic identification advantage on Election Day, which stood at seven points during the 2008 wave election," Resurgent Republic said. "As a result, national polling with a Democratic voter edge greater than the 2008 margin should be viewed with skepticism."
Indeed, and if it does turn out to be something more than a turnout election, it is important to remember that in most previous elections the later "undecideds" made up their minds the more likely they were to break toward the challenger. Having already seen what the incumbent could do, they made up their minds to give someone else a chance. There is nothing on the horizon over the next 85 days, especially where the economy is concerned, that is likely to change the possibility that the "undecideds" will again go with the challenger.
This helps explain the Obama campaign's desperation and the hysterical nature of the charges that are showing up in their ads and in the ads run by pro-Obama super PACs. The only chance they have to win is make Romney "radioactive"—and there is little evidence they are succeeding to the point where that will make a difference.