Where’s the Game Change Coming From?

Those conservatives who think all the polls and analysis of the presidential contest are mostly partisan spin, and thus prefer their own spin to that of the “biased liberal media,” should pay some attention today to this judgment at National Journal from Charlie Cook, who is pretty much unimpeachable in his objectivity (his living depends on getting elections right, after all):

The presidential race remains remarkably stable, which is good news for President Obama and Democrats and bad news for Mitt Romney and Republicans. This race is certainly not over; with three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate to go and two upcoming unemployment reports — and all against a backdrop of a very unstable world — it’s not hard to conjure up scenarios that could change the trajectory of this election. But a change of the trajectory is exactly what would have to happen for Romney to win; his current one simply doesn’t intersect with Obama’s before Nov. 6.

Leading Democratic and Republican pollsters and strategists privately say that the Obama lead is around 4 or 5 points and is neither widening nor narrowing. The convention bounces have dissipated, but Romney’s negatives remain quite high and are not diminishing. In the Gallup three-week super-samples—almost 10,000 interviews—the percentage of Democrats saying that they will definitely vote has moved up to the point that it is now virtually tied with Republicans.

Cook goes on to look at developments in the battleground states, which provide even worse news for Team Mitt, and notes in passing that of course something unexpected could happen to change the dynamics. But as you read him, it’s hard not to think about how many “game changers” that were discussed earlier this year just haven’t come to pass and may be off the table.

The economy? Yeah, we could get bad jobs reports for September and October, but they’d have to be pretty bad to have a real impact at this late date, and many economic indicators (most notably consumer confidence) are pointing at least modestly upwards in the short run. As WaPo’s Greg Sargent notes today, polls are beginning to show a significant majority of Americans think the economy is now improving or will soon improve under Obama.

The enthusiasm gap? That’s pretty much gone, most observers (including Cook) note.

The debates? Rarely a big factor, as political scientist John Sides has demonstrated in a recent piece for the Washington Monthly.

Social issues? It’s enough to note that even though Republicans once thought the “war on religion” would wedge Catholic voters in their direction, it’s now Democrats who raise “social issues.”

The ground game? Even if you accept that Team Mitt is doing a better job in this area than did Team McCain in 2008, nobody seriously argues it has an advantage over Obama, and may have a big advantage.

The ads? Again, it’s pretty well established among political scientists that there is a point of diminishing returns for paid media in presidential campaigns, a point that earlier saturation advertising has already reached. And there’s the little matter of asking what content in political ads would make a difference, given all the strategic conundrums facing Romney.

So if I were a Republican, I’d be asking myself what, exactly, is supposed to give Romney that final four-or-five-point boost that will get him over the hump. Sure, a really intense voter suppression effort in battleground states could make a difference, but most of the nasty laws in this area (the ones that haven’t been blocked by the courts) are in non-battleground states, and Democrats seem pretty well prepared to deal with voter obstruction and intimidation on Election Day.

Just asserting over and over that the polls are wrong or that Republicans are really psyched about this election may make GOPers feel better, but it doesn’t translate into actual votes. And it’s becoming harder every day to figure out from whence they are supposed to come.

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.