Sept. 10 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. presidential elections, like basketball or football games, are played in quarters; the Democrats just won the third, the summer, giving President Barack Obama a small, not decisive, advantage going into the final stretch.
Chalk this up mainly to Republican miscues. Mitt Romney’s flawed trip to Europe; the offensive comments about women by the Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin and a missed opportunity to better define the election at the party’s convention in Tampa, Florida. With a little more than eight weeks left, and the Democrats riding a little momentum from their convention, Obama is where he wanted to be at this stage.
Almost certainly, however, this will be one of those close U.S. elections, like 1960, 1968, 1976 and 2000, that may not be settled until the closing days.
Over the last 40 years, the shape of most presidential races was evident in the September soundings after the convention. Two anomalies, as measured by the Gallup poll: Four years ago, when Senator John McCain of Arizona got a bump that even most Republicans knew wouldn’t last. And in 2000, when the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, again with a convention bump, had a lead (actually, Gore ended up winning the popular vote that year). The real outlier was 1980, when Ronald Reagan trailed Jimmy Carter by seven points in early September and ended up winning by almost 10 points; campaigns can matter.
Much of the calculations from the campaigns and the pundits centers on the four national debates, slated between Oct. 3 and Oct. 22. Yet, since Reagan, these debates have made a difference only when a candidate made a careless mistake -- Michael Dukakis fumbling over what he would do if his wife were raped, George H.W. Bush looking at his watch, Gore sighing. John Kerry, most experts said, had the upper hand in the 2004 debates; his margin of defeat in November was identical to the September survey.
Obama and Romney, both very smart and very cautious, aren’t apt to make unforced errors. More important, may be which camp sets the agenda over the next three and a half weeks.
Romney wants the conversation to be dominated by the nation’s persistent economic struggles -- underscored by the weak jobs report last week -- the fading American dream and the prospect of four more years of the same. The Republican candidate’s campaign seems intent on accentuating, not playing down, vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan and his economic prescriptions.
Obama wants to focus on the choice between whether to favor the middle class or the rich, whether to move forward with Bill Clinton-type policies or return to the George W. Bush years. The reliance on Clinton, at the convention, in the Obama video and commercials and on the stump, is striking.
The influence of money in this presidential campaign is exaggerated. The Obama campaign won’t enjoy the huge resource advantage it had four years ago; it will have plenty of funds to be competitive anywhere it chooses. The Republican advantage with outside money, perhaps decisive in congressional races, will have less impact on the presidential contest.
In a close election there are critical constituency groups. There is much chatter about the Republicans’ “gender gap” with women. Conversely, Obama has a gender gap with white males. He lost that vote 57 percent to 41 percent in 2008; this time, he probably needs to get three out of every eight of these voters.
Married women with children went 51 percent to 47 percent for the Democratic nominee last time. Both candidates need to carry that swing group, about 15 percent of the electorate. Suburban independents narrowly went for the Democrat last time and are an obvious battleground group.
If the fast-growing Latino vote turns out like it did in 2008, it’s bad news for Romney who, as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro said while attending the Democratic National Convention, “just rubbed the Hispanic community the wrong way” with his immigration-bashing during the primaries.
Geographically, the most pitched battleground will be the Midwest. Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, says the two states that have most come into play in the past few months are Iowa and Wisconsin, which had been considered reliably Democratic. Ohio, as usual, is prime real estate.
It is uncertain, too, which side will best turn out its voters. Team Obama points out that in 2008 more than half of new voter registration occurred after Labor Day and predicts a repeat performance this year.
The much discussed electoral map, which only matters if it’s one of those close elections decided by a point or less, favors the president. It’s almost impossible to see Romney winning this election without carrying both Ohio and Florida.
One leading indicator over the next week, says the Democratic poll taker Peter Hart, is the content of the television commercials. “If you see the Obama acceptance speech up, you know all that you need to know about the success of the speech” at the convention, he says. “If not, the speech didn’t sell.”
He notes that the Romney campaign, since Tampa, has gone back to running strictly attack ads.
(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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