Game Reset

As Election Day begins, the political situation is a bit clearer than it’s been in recent weeks. Something reasonably resembling the status quo is likely to be maintained in Congress. And at the presidential level, most signs point to an Obama victory that should be just decisive enough to spare us a 2000-style Overtime, despite considerable Republican eagerness to challenge adverse results legally and politically. The odds of a popular vote/electorate vote split have dropped very significantly. Thanks to media caution over what has been repeatedly described as a razor-close election, and the possibility of slow counts, however, it may be a while tonight before we achieve closure. And it’s always possible I’m wrong, and the polls are wrong, about the whole thing.

But the polls are certainly heading Obama’s way, however slowly and un-emphatically. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight looks at yesterday’s twelve new national polls, and notes the obvious trend-lines:

Among 12 national polls published on Monday, Mr. Obama led by an average of 1.6 percentage points. Perhaps more important is the trend in the surveys. On average, Mr. Obama gained 1.5 percentage points from the prior edition of the same polls, improving his standing in nine of the surveys while losing ground in just one.

The one exception–surprise, surprise–was Rasmussen, though even that firm only has Romney up by one point (along with Gallup).

The national polls now range from showing a 1-point lead for Mr. Romney to slightly more than a 4-point advantage for Mr. Obama. The FiveThirtyEight forecast of the national popular vote is within this range, projecting Mr. Obama’s most likely margin of victory to be two or three percentage points, approximating the margin that George W. Bush achieved in defeating John Kerry in 2004.

Some slightly more mechanical poll-averaging methodologies show a closer popular vote contest. HuffPost’s poll tracking model shows Obama up by 1.4%. And RealClearPolitics, which is a straight average, has it at 0.7%. It’s noteworthy that RCP’s average job approval rating for the president comes in at a flat 50% on Election Day–just above George W. Bush’s in 2004, and right at the number often cited as necessary and sufficient for a presidential re-election.

Battleground state polling is about where it’s been the last week. TNR’s Nate Cohn sums up the evidence:

Obama leads by at least 3 points with 49 percent of the vote in the states won twice by Kerry and Gore, plus New Mexico, Nevada, and Ohio. These states are worth 272 electoral votes, and with the exception of a stray poll in Michigan, Romney doesn’t lead in a single non-partisan survey in any of those states. Despite a close contest and Romney’s brief national advantage following the first presidential debate, Obama has never trailed in a polling average in these states.The polls also show the president with a narrow lead ranging from 1.3 to 2.5 points in four additional states that would bring the president to 303 electoral votes: Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Iowa. Florida is perhaps the closest battleground state, where Romney leads by .4 points and the two candidates have split the polls almost evenly, with Obama ahead in 7, Romney ahead in 8, and three tied….

If the polls are right, Romney has a difficult task: sweep the five states where a non-partisan poll shows both candidates ahead, and then carry one of the states where Romney doesn’t lead in a single non-partisan poll. If the polls are about as accurate as they usually are, this would be tough to pull off. Usually, the averages correctly predict the outcome of all but one or two states, and Obama’s advantage appears broad enough to have a very good chance of withstanding typical polling errors. Instead, much of Romney’s chances depend on the possibility of a broader, systemic polling failure where surveys overestimate the president’s standing across the board.

That last sentence is worth underlining before you go on to read “too-close-to-call” news accounts or scenarios for a Romney win: something unexpected would have to happen to lift Mitt to victory. Yes, there’s a realistic chance that Sandy-related problems could reduce northeastern turnout (particularly in areas that are now preparing for a new nor’easter tomorrow) in a way that makes the national popular vote closer than the polls suggest, or even puts Mitt ahead. But unless such problems create the improbable outcome of a Romney upset in Pennsylvania, they won’t give Romney a much better chance in the electoral college.

A lot of the conservative talk this morning is about the incredible, the irresistible, the unprecedented enthusiasm of conservative voters who have been counting the days to the end of the Obama presidency for at least the last two years. If polling places had scanners that measured enthusiasm and assigned bonus votes for its intensity, that would indeed matter a lot. And the same is true in reverse of all the claims that Democratic voters are unexcited, or disappointed in Obama, or just depressed about life. Again, if they can still drag themselves to the polls, it just doesn’t matter. And remember: all those polls with likely voter screens (all of them in the last two weeks) have already factored in “enthusiasm.” So it’s not some extrinsic factor that will come out of nowhere to blow away previous assumptions. And if the Romney GOTV effort has, without anyone noticing it, far exceeded in efficacy Obama’s billion-dollar GOTV program, then that will indeed be a bolt from a clear blue sky.

Having said all that, it’s close enough that strange things can happen, and definitely close enough to produce some election night and post-election-night controversy. A week ago my own personal prediction was of a presidential election that went into overtime, with aggressive voter suppression efforts by the GOP in states like Ohio and Florida giving way to armies of lawyers struggling to control ballots yet uncounted. Late polling has led me to think that this one won’t be close enough to steal. But having lived through both 2000 and 2004, I’d like to see some good solid returns first.

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.