It’s the most overused cliché in election politics: It’ll all come down to turnout. A declaration made so often that it feels like it’s lost all meaning. I hate saying it. I hated typing it just now. The aphorism was true in 2008, too, but the difference this year is that at the moment Mitt Romney is in a much better position than John McCain four years ago.
There are nine current national polls out — Romney leads in five of them, they are tied in one, and Obama leads in the other three. If you look at the following picture of Romney’s lead compared to the advantage of Democrats in the polling sample, it paints a pretty simple picture (numbers from October 30, but they are mostly unchanged):
Turnout will indeed decide the election, but the playing field is very different than it was in 2008. Obama won the 2008 election by 7.2 points, based in large part to the incredible turnout by Democrats, a wave-like D+7 advantage (39–32). But he also won independents by 8 points, padding his lead (especially helpful because the Republican candidate has pulled more Democratic votes in the past two elections than vice versa).
This year Romney is in a great position to win independents, and could possibly win them by a larger margin than Obama did in 2008. If that were to happen, Obama would need to maintain close to 2008′s level of Democratic turnout to still win the popular vote — based on the above national polls, Obama would need to have a Democratic turnout advantage of five points to win the popular vote. Outside of 2008, that has not happened since the midterm elections of 1986. If that’s not enough, Gallup’s and Rasmussen’s party-ID surveys over the last month suggest that it will be Republicans who have stronger turnout this year. If that were to happen, there is no chance Romney loses the election, barring a massive swing among independents in the final week.
So as much as I hate to repeat it, this election will come down to turnout. There is thus no time for complacency among Republicans, because every vote is going to matter for Romney to combat what will likely be a formidable get-out-the-vote effort by Team Obama. Furthermore, for Romney to win the Electoral College safely, he would likely need a win by two points or more in the popular vote. Anything below that will leave some battleground states too close for comfort.
With one week to go, things are looking better for Romney than at any other point in this entire campaign. His path to victory is through an electorate that looks like any of the last six presidential elections except 2008, while Obama has to find a way to recreate the magic that propelled him to victory four years ago. While nothing is certain next Tuesday, Romney is in a strong position to finish a comeback that no one thought possible a month ago. If that happens, the size of Romney’s victory could be the biggest surprise of all.