Obama Is Ahead, but Is He Winning?

The polls put the incumbent in the lead, but there are plenty of reasons for Republicans to be optimistic -- and Democrats to be jittery.

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Reuters

Three months remain until election day, and President Obama narrowly leads in nearly every national poll. Gallup's most recent tracking has him up 47-45 over Mitt Romney, for example, and just about every reputable poll for the last two months has shown a similar result. Nate Silver's weighted polling model puts Obama's current share of the popular vote at 50.2 percent to Romney's 48.4 percent, a figure that has scarcely changed since early June.

By the numbers, then, Obama is winning, if barely. (When you factor in the way the election is actually decided, by electoral votes, the president does slightly better.) Yet Republicans seem bullish on their chances. Take Karl Rove: His column in Thursday's Wall Street Journal was headlined "For Romney, Even Means Ahead." Romney, Rove argues, remains standing after weeks of pummeling from the other side. He's gotten tougher and more disciplined, and his fortunes will only improve as voters take a closer look at him with his choice of running mate and convention speech.

Rove isn't being contrarian here -- this is a widely shared sentiment on both sides, for a number of reasons. Here's why many Republicans think they're in good shape -- and many Democrats agree:

1. The GOP's enthusiasm advantage: The evidence that Republicans are more excited about this election than Democrats continues to mount. A memo released Thursday by the Republican polling and advocacy shop Resurgent Republic found that 62 percent of Republicans were "extremely enthusiastic" about voting in November, versus just 49 percent of Democrats. Gallup's recent polling found Democrats less excited about voting than anytime since 2004. Intuitively, this makes sense: Many of Obama's supporters seem weary and disillusioned, while Republicans, though they may not be thrilled with Romney, seem thoroughly fired up to get rid of the president. The Resurgent Republic poll found enthusiasm particularly lagging among young voters and Hispanics, two major parts of Obama's 2008 coalition. But it's worth taking these numbers with a grain of salt: According to Gallup, Democrats were far more enthusiastic than Republicans in 2004. It wasn't exactly a ticket to victory.

2. The economic drumbeat: Every month, a new jobs report comes out, and every month, the news is the same: tepid positive growth and barely a quaver of the unemployment rate. This has been the trend for most of the past year, and unless something dramatic happens, it's likely to continue, exacerbating with each repetition voters' impression of an economy stuck in neutral. There are three more jobs reports before the election, including one scheduled for release on Nov. 2, just four days before the vote. Each one brings an opportunity for Romney to sell his promise for change and economic turnaround, while Obama is stuck repeating two difficult-to-sell arguments: That things could be even worse, and that he has a plan -- it's just not one Congress has any interest in acting on. As Derek Thompson has noted, based on the economic fundamentals, Obama ought to be doing much worse than he is.

3. Money: Democrats are convinced they're about to get slammed with a barrage of GOP-aligned spending, and not without reason. Romney has been outraising Obama for the last three months; in July, the GOP candidate and his party took in $101 million to Obama and the DNC's $75 million. Obama also has been spending his campaign cash faster than it's coming in, investing up front in staff, field offices, and the early ad blitz they hope will define Romney. That means the Republicans also now have more cash on hand to spend down the stretch, $170 million to the Democrats' $144 million as of the end of June. And then there's all the pro-Romney super PACs, which are expected to far outgun their Democratic counterparts, possibly spending as much as $1 billion. As Obama himself complained at a campaign stop in Colorado Thursday: "Over the next three months, you will see more negative ads, more money spent than you've ever seen in your life. I mean, these super PACs, these guys are writing $10 million checks and giving them to Mr. Romney's supporters."

4. Voter suppression: Thirty-three states have now passed laws requiring voters to show identification, with others, such as Florida and Colorado, looking to "purge" the voter rolls of those they deem ineligible. Republicans have largely led the charge for voter ID and related measures, which the left views as a concerted attempt to suppress the vote of minorities and other Democratic-leaning constituencies; Obama campaign manager Jim Messina described them to me as the second biggest challenge the president faces, after the super PACs. Some the laws are now tied up in court, such as Pennsylvania's voter ID law, which one Republican state legislator boasted would "allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania" and which voting-rights groups such as the ACLU call unconstitutional. Another lawsuit brought by the Obama campaign challenges Ohio's attempt to shorten early voting. The Obama campaign has since the spring been aggressively working to inform supporters of new voting requirements, but many Democrats are downright fatalistic about the potential for problems at the polls.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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