Last week, after the Texas primary gave Mitt Romney the statistical majority he needs to become the Republican nominee, President Obama called him to offer congratulations. The race is now officially on — time to take stock.
In national head-to-head polls, Romney is doing well. Obama is below 50 percent, which is a danger sign for an incumbent. Romney is only slightly behind, tied or slightly ahead, which is a good sign for a challenger. These numbers say Romney is going to win.
In state-by-state electoral vote projections, however, Obama is doing well. It takes 270 electoral votes to win, and 243 of them are in states currently safe or leaning for Obama. States currently safe or leaning for Romney have only 170, with 122 up for grabs. These numbers say Obama is going to win.
Interesting benchmarks, but the campaign is much more fluid than that, and firm trends have yet to establish themselves. Obama won in 2008 with strong enthusiasm among base groups that turned out in unusually high numbers — young voters and African-Americans — and strong support among independents who were unaligned with either party. (It is a myth that John McCain lost because conservatives stayed home; base Republican turnout in 2008 was at normal levels.) Those dynamics are not yet in place for Obama this time.
While he will certainly maintain his support among African-Americans, he is no longer seen as exciting by the young and has lost much ground with independents. He is trying to recapture his old magic with previously loyal troops by firing them up with harsh rhetoric, but there are signs that he is offending the swing voters who deserted Democrats massively in 2010, voters he desperately needs. Team Obama seems to be changing its message, not something a confident campaign usually does at this stage.
For months they attacked Romney's business record at Bain Capital, calling him "a job destroyer" and "a Wall Street guy." That excited Hollywood and Occupy Wall Street sympathizers who thought Obama had gone soft on their issues. However, a number of prominent Democrats, including the governor of Massachusetts, have been very uneasy with that approach. They have felt compelled to speak up in defense of private equity funds in general and even Bain in particular. Then, last Thursday, when former President Clinton was outlining all the reasons why Obama is the better choice, he observed that a former governor with a brilliant business record "obviously passes the qualification threshold." The media highlighted this side comment as a signal that the Bain attacks weren't working.
In recent speeches, Obama has ignored Bain and gone after Romney's record as governor, perhaps changing course. By contrast, the Romney campaign stays where it has always been, focusing on the economy. He is now repeating various forms of the famous Ronald Reagan question — "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" — hoping for a replay of the 1980 race.
Its easy to understand why. Voters disliked Carter but were not sure Reagan was up to the job; the election was neck and neck until the last 10 days. Then voters decided that Reagan looked presidential enough for them to give him a try and a tight race turned into a landslide.
There is a possible parallel here. Independents have soured on Obama but are not convinced Romney is what they want. So, will history repeat itself, with Obama floundering like Jimmy Carter, allowing Romney to break through in the last week, or will Obama be George W. Bush, hanging in there and defeating the guy from Massachusetts?
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.