When Time Runs Out

An awful lot of the political chatter this week revolves around clock-watching: (1) At what point should we conclude that a relatively steady Obama lead nationally and in the battleground states in a race that has been incredibly steady all year represents an existential threat to Romney? (2) At what point to the increasingly distant prospect of a late “game change” in Romney’s favor run up against the realities of early voting and votes “banked” under current political conditions?

TNR’s Nate Cohn has been regularly addressing the first question, and has this answer today:

Every day that goes by without a shift in Romney’s direction or an event that could plausibly induce such a shift is a lost day for the Romney campaign. This isn’t about who wins the news cycle; whether Obama refers to Middle Eastern violence as a bump in the road doesn’t matter. It’s about events that could reshape one of the most stable races in modern electoral history.

The race is likely [to] tighten, if for no other reason than because Romney’s still short of 47 percent, which, in my view, is probably his floor given the president’s disapproval rating. But the margin is somewhat less important than whether Obama falls beneath his reelect number. If likely voter surveys show Obama around 49 percent with Romney behind by a discernible margin heading into early voting, the president is going to get reelected whether Romney’s at 43, 45, or 47 percent. If Obama does fall clearly beneath 49 percent, then we’re looking for Romney to exceed 47 percent, which to date has looked like his floor based on Obama’s disapproval rating, but also his ceiling in national polls.

In other words, Obama leads any way you slice it, and Romney has yet to show he can actually achieve the levels of popularity that Obama’s approval/disapproval ratio suggests he should achieve–but which would still leave him a bit short.

The second question is a little tricker. Every day we hear that another state is beginning early voting, creating the sense that Obama’s current lead in the polls could soon begin dictating the final results, particularly given Team Obama’s generally-conceded advantage in GOTV resources.

But if you look at the battleground states, they are not for the most part among the states with early early voting. Only Virginia has begun in-person early voting, and the Old Dominion is one of the states that still requires a “valid excuse,” sworn to by oath, for one’s inability to vote on Election Day. Iowa begins later this week, and New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin have already mailed out absentee ballots. But in Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Ohio, no form of early voting occurs before October.

So while in an abstract sense “time may be running out” for Mitt Romney, no one should take that too literally just yet.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.