Romney holds the national lead in polls. Obama still has the edge in many swing states. And the final result will be down to the wire.
Partisans still hoping that their candidate will build a clear lead in the presidential contest are likely to be disappointed. The race seems destined to be a close one, with the outcome remaining in doubt to the very end. President Obama won the second debate, but not by nearly enough to make up for his devastating loss in the first one. Obama was on the verge of putting the race away heading into the first debate, but his weak performance and Mitt Romney's commanding effort effectively changed the race's trajectory. Although Obama's poll numbers are no longer dropping, he is locked in a tight contest: He trails Romney by 1 to 4 percentage points in national polling, yet he still holds a fragile lead in the Electoral College.
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Romney entered the first debate with an edge arguably in only one battleground state: North Carolina. Going into the second debate, the former Massachusetts governor also led narrowly in Florida and Virginia, putting him ahead in three of 11 battleground states. Obama now holds small leads in Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, with a slightly wider advantage in Nevada. He still leads, in my judgment, in Ohio by about 4 points (although going into the second debate, one senior Romney strategist claimed that the two men were essentially tied at 47 percent in the Buckeye State). Romney is polling far back in Michigan and Pennsylvania, states that are effectively noncompetitive.
Although history and this column have argued that the popular vote and the electoral vote usually go in the same direction (that's what happened in 53 of 56 presidential elections), today, Romney's national popular-vote situation is different than his Electoral College challenge. Romney's scar tissue in swing states -- the damage inflicted on him by negative ads funded by the Obama campaign and Priorities USA, targeting Bain Capital, plant closings, layoffs, outsourcing, income taxes, and bank accounts in Bermuda, the Caymans, and Switzerland -- is still a huge problem. This is compounded by the fact that before the ads aired, voters knew very little about Romney; because of that, they had no positive feelings or perceptions to help him weather the assault. As a result, the attacks stuck as if he were covered in Velcro. Hence, the swing states, many of which have endured saturation advertising since June (73,000 ads in Las Vegas alone), behave differently than the fortysomething other states that have seen little advertising.
With a race this close, small but important factors will likely be key.