A Tenuous Advantage for Obama

President Barack Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. (National Journal)

The back-to-back national party conventions sharpened the arguments of President Obama and Mitt Romney, but they probably did little to reshape the dynamics of a razor-thin race that has demonstrated remarkable stability for months.

After the marathon of speeches, videos, wall-to-wall coverage, and the occasional snafu, most analysts believe the race, heading into its final two months, will look almost exactly as it did before the conventions: President Obama clinging to a small advantage but still standing below the critical 50 percent mark in support.

"I think that neither candidate will have changed many of those swing voters," said Andrew Kohut, president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. "In terms of being transformative, I just don't see it for either side. The polls I pay attention to are probably going to be pretty close to where they were pre-convention."

Most of those pre-convention surveys showed Obama with a slim lead in a race that is dividing the country along partisan, ideological, and racial lines. Although polling conducted between the conven- tions found that Romney had made modest gains in bolstering his personal image during the GOP gathering, his ballot showing against Obama improved hardly at all — only enough to lift him into a dead heat at best.

As a result, if Obama gains any lift from his own convention — which seems likely, given the powerhouse performances during the gathering's first two nights from Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro — the president will enter the race's final stage narrowly ahead. "Some polls had it even [before the convention], some polls had the president narrowly ahead. But nobody had Romney ahead, and I think that's what you will probably see in September," said Kohut.

Even before Obama spoke, top Democratic strategists expressed enormous satisfaction with their convention. Yet, they will be closely watching polls in the next few weeks: Even if Obama leads, the deeper the race progresses into the fall without his support consistently surpassing 50 percent, the more anxious many party strategists will grow.

As one senior Democratic strategist noted on Thursday, each percentage point of support he must capture above 47 to 48 percent is likely to be significantly tougher than the last. "He is still in that never never land of 45 to 49 percent in job approval and 45 to 49 percent on the ballot," said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "You are never, ever comfortable if you are doing an incumbent's reelection and he is in that range." That will be especially true if the remaining government unemployment reports issued before the election yield disappointing results.

Each party's convention put enormous effort into shoring up the principal vulnerability of its candidate, yet it's unclear how much progress either side made. In terms of his personal image, Romney's greatest difficulty is the sense among many middle-class voters — particularly the ones in battleground states who have been bombarded with negative ads criticizing his business background — that he neither understands nor empathizes with their economic distress. The GOP convention in Tampa sought to reverse that perception with testimony from friends, families he knows in the Mormon church, and above all his wife, Ann, about Romney's personal generosity and compassion. Yet a CNN/ORC International poll conducted immediately after the Republican gathering showed only a very modest increase, from 39 percent to 43 percent, in the share of voters who said Romney was more in touch than Obama with the needs of the middle class.

Obama's challenge has been to convince voters that he has a plan to accelerate the economic recovery. That difficulty is measured in polls consis- tently showing that Romney leads Obama when voters are asked which candidate could better handle the economy. In the new CNN/ORC poll, Romney led among white voters on that question by a resounding 61 percent to 34 percent.

On Tuesday, the Democratic convention speeches from Castro and the first lady sought to identify the president with the struggles and aspirations of the middle class and those hoping to reach it. On Wednesday, former President Clinton's speech represented a defense attorney's closing argument against the Republican attacks on Obama's first term. But it fell to Obama in his acceptance speech on Thursday night to fill in the vision for a second term that has been the most conspicuous blank spot in his campaign so far.

At a National Journal panel before Obama's speech, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg said the president faced a high bar to convince voters he has ideas commensurate with the problems they see facing the country. "If you ask voters whether we should continue the Obama policies into the next term, that's not what they are looking for," he said. "They want change. They don't want the Republican policies ... [but] they want long-term, bold, future-oriented policies that address the problems facing the country."

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On that front, Obama's speech on Thursday did not break dramatic new ground. While identifying several specific second-term goals, Obama put less emphasis on detailing his plan than on framing the broad ideological choice in the election and identifying his path with bedrock American values, much as Romney also tried to do at his convention last week. Obama borrowed less from Clinton than from Ronald Reagan: He continued to bet more heavily on defining a direction than providing the public a detailed road map for how he would reach it.

In their messaging, the conventions also underscored the distance between the coalitions each side is hoping to mobilize. The Democratic convention worked overtime trying to energize young people and minority voters, particularly Latinos, who polls show to be lagging in enthusiasm. Even more striking was the unabashed appeal to socially-liberal voters, with a parade of speakers praising abortion rights, the administration's decision to provide free access to contraception under health insurance, and the president's support for gay marriage. All of that reflected the Democratic priority of maximizing support among white-collar whites (especially women), the most socially-liberal component of the white electorate — even at the price of further antagonizing culturally conservative voters already moving in large numbers toward the GOP.

The Republican convention, by contrast, seemed focused more on maximizing Romney's advantage among older and blue-collar whites already leaning toward him. Though the party highlighted an array of Hispanic elected officials, led by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, resistance from its conservative base has prevented it from bending its agenda in ways that might broaden its minority appeal. Republicans, tellingly, approved a platform that took an uncompromisingly hard line on immigration — for instance, by urging the denial of federal education funds to any state that provides in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. And the core negative message that the GOP convention's speakers delivered against Obama — the charge that he would redistribute income from the middle-class to the poor — will likely do more to reinforce Romney's advantage among economically-strained white voters than to reach beyond them.

Obama's formula for reelection remains a simple equation: 80/40. If he can match his 80 percent showing from 2008 among minority voters, and those voters represent at least the 26 percent of the electorate they constituted last time, he can win a national majority with support from only about 40 percent of whites. At a Bloomberg News breakfast this week, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina dismissed Romney camp projections that the minority share of voters might slightly decline this year. "It's not going to drop, and I think it's going to increase," he said.

If the minority share of the vote rises even a point and Obama matches or exceeds his 80 percent showing among them, the white vote he'd need would dip below 40 percent. That could be critical, because many polls place him right at that tipping point among white voters. In an election that could be decided by small shifts in the preference or turnout of almost any group, no single variable could be more important than whether minorities cast the same share, slightly less, or slightly more of the vote that they did when Obama won his historic victory four years ago.