So fifteen days out, there seem to be three big strategic questions about the presidential contest that are still very much up in the air, aside from the impact of tonight’s debate and all other isolated or “external” events (i.e., real news):
1) Is Romney’s recent “surge” in the polls a product of swing-voter persuasion or simply the re-emergence of an “enthusiasm gap” between Ds and Rs? Some of the recent surveys suggesting major Romney gains among women support the former proposition–presumably because of Moderate Mitt’s ability to win over some wavering “economic referendum” voters–though Nate Silver is arguing that the preponderance of evidence is that the gender gap is larger than it’s been since at least 2000. The sizable gaps between RV and LV findings quite a few polls, however–about double their normal size, according to TNR’s Nate Cohn–support the “enthusiasm gap” explanation, though then you have to deal with the secondary question whether it’s Republican “excitement” or Democratic “discouragement” that’s the main factor.
(2) Does Obama have a “battleground state” advantage? This was a heavily argued proposition throughout the last two weeks, when Romney’s gains in national polls didn’t seem to be manifesting themselves in key states. Indeed, at this very moment the big hep topic among analysts is the possibility of Romney winning the popular vote while Obama still wins the EVs and the presidency. There’s even a theory behind it: battleground states have now been so saturated by political communications that there are virtually no undecided voters left, making them impermeable to the debates and other supposed game-changing events. But while this scenario remains entirely possible (everything’s possible in a close election), battleground state polls are now showing some pretty significant Romney gains, to the point where many observers are now confidently placing not only NC but VA and FL into his column. If, as many still assume, Obama has an advantage beyond what the national polls suggest in OH, IA, CO, and NV, it may be because of factors peculiar to these states, not because of some uniformly separate landscape for battleground states.
(3) Who’s Got the Better Final Push? The answer to this question, of course, depends in part on how you answer the first two. If voter persuasion is actually more important at this stage than voter mobilization, then Romney’s relative strength in paid media could matter as much as or more than Obama’s presumed strength in GOTV resources. But the most intriguing question is the size of Obama’s GOTV advantage. No one doubts it exists, but is it anything like that of 2008, or is it more like 2004, when it proved to be underwhelming in the end? And while no one doubts the GOP is doing better in voter ID and mobilization than it did in 2008, how much better is that? If you talk to knowledgeable partisans in, say, Iowa, you hear wildly differing conclusions on this crucial point. And the evidence so far from early voting is mixed.
There are additional sub-questions that are highly relevant, including the connection between persuasion and mobilization strategies (i.e., can negative messages from either campaign pull swing voters across the line while increasing base voter enthusiasm?), and all sorts of micro-controversies with potentially “macro” effects, such as Election confusion-and-intimidation tactics by the GOP. But you can read about the “state of the race” for many, many hours, and it generally boils down to some combination of the big three questions above.