With just three days to go until Election Day, Mitt Romney is well within striking distance to defeat an incumbent president. It was just about a month ago, heading into the first debate in Denver, that Mitt Romney was declared dead, and now he heads into Election Day in a virtual tie nationally.
A week ago, Romney seemed poised to win the popular vote, while questions lingered about the battleground states that have seen polls that are at complete odds with the overall trends nationally. Then Hurricane Sandy happened, stalling the race for three days while President Obama benefited from the powerful advantage of the incumbency during a national crisis. Romney, on the other hand, was forced to hold small events on the campaign trail to maintain appearances, but had no chance to break through to voters in swing states.
Now the national vote has tightened slightly, while the state polls continue to favor Obama heading into Tuesday. The daily tracking polls for the most part have not tightened much, with the exception of Rasmussen, which has gone from a two-point Romney lead to a tie since Sandy made landfall. This puts the Real Clear Politics average at a one-tenth-of-a-point lead for Obama, giving an almost exact tie with just three days left.
This is why Romney is still in striking distance to win on Tuesday. With just five percent of voters currently undecided, it is unlikely that President Obama will be able to get much above 48 percent of the vote. If the third-party candidates gain about 1 percent, that leaves just 4 percent left. The best case scenario for Obama would be an even split, leaving both candidates with about 49.5 percent each. But in 2004, John Kerry won by nine points among those who decided in the final three days. If Romney were to get only that, he would narrowly win the popular vote, by about three-tenths of a point. Many would argue that Bush actually performed better among late deciders than an incumbent would otherwise because he was a wartime president (think of the last minute Bin Laden tape that surfaced), suggesting Romney could be in a stronger position to do even better with last-second deciders.
But that doesn’t tell the full story. Many of the national polls still have much higher turnout among Democrats than long-term polling from both Gallup and Rasmussen would indicate. If either Gallup or Rasmussen is right, Romney could be headed for a much more decisive victory than just about anyone could see coming. That would not only give Romney a comfortable win in the popular vote, but would translate to wins in many of the tight battleground states, with the potential of a few upsets along the way such as Pennsylvania, Nevada, or even Minnesota.
Not only could turnout dramatically change the story on Tuesday, but early voting leading up to Election Day has been much more favorable to Republicans than it was in 2008. Obama won in 2008 in large part by building insurmountable leads in swing states like Ohio, Florida, Nevada, and Iowa. This year the GOP has cut into Obama’s lead in just about every state, with big increases for Republicans and decreases for Democrats happening in some of the big prizes, such as Iowa and Ohio. Nevada has tightened to the point where it’s not impossible that Romney could pull off an upset, and Republicans actually lead in early ballots in Colorado. Combine those stats with a likely bigger advantage among Election Day voters, and you can see why Team Romney feels cautiously optimistic in the final days.
I am always hesitant to point out the intangibles beyond the polls because they are, by their very nature, impossible to quantify in votes. That said, anyone who saw Romney draw over 30,000 people in Ohio has to admit there is something going on that is reminiscent of Obama’s 2008 election in enthusiasm and genuine excitement. Any Republican who felt the air sucked right out of McCain’s campaign in the final days of 2008 has to smile hearing that Obama couldn’t pull as big of a crowd in Mentor, Ohio, the Saturday before the election as McCain did in the exact same venue four years ago.
Anyone who has followed the polls knows that enthusiasm isn’t a completely unquantifiable aspect of Romney’s campaign. Polls all year have shown large advantages with enthusiasm for Romney, with the significant difference since the debate being that Republicans are now excited not only about voting against Obama but enthusiastic about voting for Romney. That is the same spirit that led to a sweeping victory for Obama in 2008, and it is the same underlying passion that has Romney primed to prove a lot of people wrong on Tuesday.