The race still is Obama’s to lose

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 16, 2012


Mitt Romney has certainly surged since the first presidential debate on October 3rd. However, Obama continues to lead in most polls and, were the election held today, would win re-election. Though Romney must be credited for transforming this election into a contested race, the Republican nominee still needs to attract more support to win the White House.  Today’s presidential debate will be both an opportunity for Romney as much as a test for Obama. If the incumbent president loses again tonight, Romney might very well take the lead. Romney must do well tonight, but President Obama is still in control of his own future. If he performs as he should—and as a seating President is widely expected to do—Obama will strengthen his narrow lead. 


Presidential elections in the U.S. are hotly contested. The democratic process allows parties and candidates to campaign actively and effectively. Millions of Americans become engage in the campaign as partisan campaigners, donors or just informed likely voters.  The campaign captures the attention of the media and public opinion in general. Candidates actively reach out to undecided voters, especially in the battleground states.  When a president is seeking re-election, polls normally show an early lead for the incumbent.  Yet, challengers always close in as election-day nears.  As it should occur in every healthy democracy, uncertainty over the winner is always the norm in American presidential elections.


Millions of American tune in for the presidential debates.  The first debate was watched by 67 million viewers—almost one in every two Americans who will likely turn out on November 6.  In 2008, only 52 million tuned in for the first Obama-McCain debate. The harsh economic crisis and the overwhelming popularity of then presidential hopeful Barack Obama made the 2008 race less uncertain than the 2012 contest.  Obama’s dismal performance on October 3rd invigorated the republican candidate and added an unexpected level of uncertainty to the election.  The vice presidential debate of October 11th attracted 51.4 million viewers.  Admittedly, the number was significantly lower than the 70 million who tuned in to watch the Biden-Sarah Palin debate in 2008.  The controversy over Palin’s nomination and the media frenzy that Sarah Palin generated made that debate more attractive than the VP debate last week.


Americans also vote in sufficiently large numbers. Turnout among the voting age population has varied between a low of 50% in 1988 to 63% in 1960, the official number of the voting age population includes non-citizens, un-documents aliens and even people serving time in jail.  The U.S. has one of the largest incarcerated populations in the western world.  More than 2.3 million are held in prison today.  In addition, 5 million are on probation or parole. Many of them are not eligible to vote. In several states, former felons lose their citizenship rights. If we add up those in jails, those who have lost their right to vote and legal and undocumented non-citizens, the eligible population falls from 230 million to less than 210 million. The 132.6 million that voted in the 2008 election represent 63% of the estimated eligible voting age population.


Millions of Americans also engage in campaigning and donating to their favorite candidates. Obama has raised US$432 million, 55% of which has come from people donating less than US$ 200.  Romney has raised US$280 million, 22% coming from individuals making contributions of less than 200.  Both parties and partisan political action committees have also raised millions of dollars—with Republicans attracting more money than Democrats, which makes up for Obama’s advantage in personal donations.


Because the democratic process engages millions of Americans, two weeks before the election the number of undecided voters is small. Methodological issues make it very difficult to draw representative samples of the population. Younger voters are more difficult to reach via telephone. Likely voters are very difficult to identify. Specific voting groups, including minorities, are normally underrepresented in samples.  Pollsters develop sophisticated models to correct those biases, but polls end up being less accurate than they were 10 or 20 years ago.


Romney’s surge in polls should then be seen with a grain of salt. The Republican candidate’s chances of winning have undoubtedly improved since October 3rd.  But most projections still have President Obama on the lead. Romney needs an additional very strong performance tonight to stay in the race. His numbers have improved in Florida and Virginia, two must-win states for Romney, but he still behind Obama. The president did so poorly two weeks ago than any decent performance will enliven his Democratic base. Obama only needs to hold ground in tonight’s debate.  Logically, if he comes in with a defensive strategy, he might again lose tonight.  Thus, the President will probably be more aggressive. Still, the election is Obama’s to lose.  Obama should not forget that he is still ahead in most battleground states. If he shows desperation tonight, he will probably do more harm than good to his own chances of staying in the White House.