By Elvin Lim
Mitt Romney barely passed the bar on Monday night’s debate. He was tentative and guarded, not just because he was being strategic, but because he wasn’t (understandably) in command of the facts of foreign policy of which a sitting president is in command. Barack Obama ‘won’ the debate, but it will have minimal impact on altering the fundamental dynamics of the race.
A number of polls now find Romney’s momentum continuing at the national level. Romney’s team has been playing a national strategy because he needs to swing nearly all the battleground states in his direction, whereas Obama has played a state-by-state strategy because he has a couple of paths to 270. The upshot of this is that Romney is intensifying his lead at the national level, but this movement at the aggregate level has not translated as well to the battleground states. Most importantly, Obama still leads by a razor’s edge in Ohio.
The Obama campaign is making a bet: that in these last two weeks, it is the ground game that matters most because there are more registered Democrats than they are registered Republicans, and the key for Obama is turnout, not ideological conversion (as it has been for Romney). This is why Obama leads in field offices in key battleground states. Both campaigns acknowledge that the Democrats will dominate in this ground game.
And so, in this final stretch, it will be two great partisan armies getting the vote out in the battleground states that will determine the final outcome. The artificial high that Obama was riding through the summer, as Mitt Romney was still battling his compatriots during the primaries, was vitiated as soon as Romney took the national stage and glided back to the ideological center. On the other hand, whatever momentum Romney has today will not easily pierce the Democratic firewall in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
This means that silly season in American elections is in full swing. To get the vote, both sides must claim that Armageddon would arrive if one or the other candidate wins. Scare tactics, mud-slinging, and even a Donald Trump surprise are intended to rile people up and get them to the ballot box, or make them so disillusioned that they fail to turn out for their candidate. It is a quadrennial irony we face that everything that is wrong about American democracy is on full, unvarnished display at the same time that citizens prepare to perform one of their greatest acts in a democracy. The good news is this will all be over in a week.
Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears on the OUPblog regularly.