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The six percent

Portland Associate Partner and ex-Republican Capitol Hill staffer Idil Oyman considers whether Romney’s debate poll bounce will deliver the real momentum needed to take him to the White House?

The polls are tight and movement for either candidate is limited to one or two points. This Presidential contest is going down to the wire.

After Governor Mitt Romney’s strong performance in the opening debate, he clearly enjoyed a bounce that eluded him after the party convention in August.

But will it deliver the real momentum needed to take him to the White House? As a former Republican Hill staffer, I hope it does, but feel the fundamentals still favour President Obama.

The most recent polls are at odds. At the time of writing in the aftermath of that first debate, Rasmussen gives Romney a two point lead while Gallup has Obama three points ahead.

The final result will rest on the success of both campaigns in the last four weeks in winning over the crucial undecided, particularly across the battleground states, and motivating their respective bases to ensure they turn out to vote.

The six per cent

There is lots of talk about the “undecided” voters who will allegedly make or break each candidate’s hopes. Most strategists put them into two broad camps: those informed voters who are unconvinced by either candidate, and those who are only now beginning to tune in to the elections.

These groups comprise together approximately six per cent of the electorate. Even more importantly, they tend to reside disproportionately in the Upper Midwest which includes many of the so-called swing states.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll recently described them as “female, white, lacking a college education and earning less than $25,000” or “Walmart Moms” in shorthand.

By all accounts, Romney has made inroads with this important group of voters, yet those same reports show women voters overall as largely supporting Obama. What makes these “Walmart Moms” so important is where they live.

Barring a political earthquake, most US states are pretty settled in whether they vote Republican or Democrat. But each election, there are a handful of states whose electoral votes are up for grabs. These swing states  – Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin – account for 110 electoral votes. Which way they vote decides who sits in the White House.

Currently, the margins in these states vary on average by two points. In the winner take all set up – in which those who win a state get all their electoral college votes –  their eventual outcome makes the difference between victory and defeat.

Not surprisingly, both campaigns are inundating voters in these swing states with TV adverts, visits and door knocking.

Recent polls show Romney edging Obama in Florida and Virginia. But Obama still leads in Ohio and no Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio. In all, the total battleground electoral vote polling, for now, favours Obama, showing he would win 66 over Romney’s 44.

Likely to cast a ballot

In an election this close, it comes down to turnout which is infinitely difficult to predict. Historically enthusiasm, itself measured by various questions, is a decent indicator of who will actually cast their vote.

Campaign donations are one important measure of enthusiasm. Obama raised a record $181million in September. The Romney campaign raised a remarkable $12 million in 48 hours immediately after the 4 October debates. Both campaigns claim a huge percentage of those donations were from new supporters.

Recent polls of each candidate’s base shows just 76 per cent of Democrats are “extremely likely” to vote whereas 84 per cent of Republican voters say they are “extremely likely” to do so.

Right track/wrong track figures are still poor for President Obama, but 37 per cent of likely US voters now say the country is heading in the right direction, up one point from September and in line with the peak in optimism in late June 2009. And, his approval rating is now 47 per cent up 10 points since last year.

So, while these are still not ringing endorsements, they show that his campaign has made some inroads, not just against Romney but also on his own record.

Will Romney win the White House?

If this is the “Economy Election”, the Republicans are right to continue to hammer Obama on jobs and economic leadership. Romney still has a slight lead on the question of who would better manage the economy – 49 per cent to 47 per cent for Obama – but this has dwindled since August.

All this underscores the closeness of the race. So why do I believe the basics still favour Obama?

First, Obama maintains a strong lead over Romney on the question of who “fights harder for the middle class” – that nebulous question which points to multiple policy areas.

The Democrats will highlight inconsistencies in Romney’s rhetoric and Ryan’s policies. Until and unless the Republicans say exactly how they’ll create 12 million jobs, slash spending, cut taxes (and increase military funding) without exploding the deficit, the principles of math and economics support Obama.

Second, the economy is showing signs of improving. Despite conspiracy theories from the right wing discrediting the authenticity of figures showing a solid improvement in unemployment numbers, these are bolstered by a recent Bloomberg Index saying that consumer confidence has increased for the sixth straight week. Another poll shows that 44 per cent think the American economy will get better – the highest number since late 2009.

Third, a current assessment of how electoral votes would fall favour Obama: 303 electoral votes for the incumbent and 235 for Romney.

Finally, Americans tend not to remove sitting presidents from office unless the alternative is an exciting one and the incumbent truly not favoured. The most recent example is when Bill Clinton unseated President George H.W. Bush with more than double the number of electoral votes (and 18 per cent of the public supported Independent Ross Perot).  But voters were drawn to Clinton and Perot much earlier than one month before Election Day.

In 2004, George W. Bush fought for re-election against the backdrop of a divisive war in which thousands of American troops had been killed. As I campaigned for the Republicans in Pennsylvania, I feared this had created a public mood which would lead to defeat.

Instead, Bush won. It might have been by the narrowest margin of any President since Harry Truman in 1948 but it underlines how difficult it is to beat an incumbent.

Romney could become the next ouster, but his campaign will need a steady, and lucky, wind to put him in the White House.

Idil, who is Portland’s Head of Litigation, regularly commentates on US politics on Sky News. Before joining Portland, she worked in Washington for 11 years including time as Press Secretary for Republican Congressman Phil English.