Camps see fight to the finish

Mitt Romney in Orange City, Iowa, on Friday. Republicans will be pressingthe "Are you better off?" question in the weeks ahead.
Mitt Romney in Orange City, Iowa, on Friday. Republicans will be pressingthe "Are you better off?" question in the weeks ahead. (EVAN VUCCI / AP)

The conventions may have sharpened differences, but most voters seem set, with a handful of states in play.

Posted: September 10, 2012

 CHARLOTTE - After two weeks, enough speeches to conk a political junkie into a coma, silly hats, loud horns, hours of TV commentary, and millions of dollars in staging, the two national political party conventions may not reshape the presidential race much after all.

Aides to President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney predicted Friday that the back-to-back conventions would do little to change the dynamics that have kept the contest stable - and close - for months.

Now, the festivities did allow Republicans and Democrats to clarify the sharp differences between them, the philosophical cleavage along which voters will make their choices. Yet strategists say the race is likely to remain as it is now: roughly tied in national opinion surveys and also close in the nine to 12 swing states that will decide who gets to 270 electoral votes, although independent polls show Obama with a slight lead in most of those.

"We come out of the convention with some momentum - but that doesn't mean the race is going to change significantly," senior White House adviser David Plouffe said Friday. "Our suspicion is the race is going to be about where it was."

Indeed, Obama advisers "are not expecting huge movement . . . all the way out to the next 60 days," Plouffe said.

Whatever elation Democrats got from their three-day convention here in North Carolina, Friday's monthly jobs report was destined to put a damper on it. The Labor Department said 96,000 jobs were created in August, below expectations and not enough to keep pace with the number of new people, such as college graduates, entering the workforce. The unemployment rate dropped slightly to 8.1 percent, mostly because of the number of people who stopped looking for work.

"After the party last night, the hangover's today," Romney told reporters before a campaign appearance in New Hampshire. Obama, also in New Hampshire later in the day, said at a rally that the job figures were "not good enough."

Traditionally, the unemployment rate tracks with an incumbent president's chances of reelection, and no president has won a second term with the rate above 7.2 percent since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. There are other factors, too, of course, and political scientists say the most important thing is whether voters sense progress.

President George H.W. Bush kept declaring the economy was on the mend in 1992 - and he was right - but the proof didn't show up in the monthly jobs report until that December, too late to help him win a second term.

"Until the numbers take a side in the election, it will be left to the two campaigns to convince voters that the economy is moving one way or the other," said Michael Federici, a political scientist at Mercyhurst University in Erie. "If the numbers provide a clear picture . . . it could well determine the outcome of the election."

Two more monthly jobs reports are due before Nov. 6. Though any number of unanticipated events could change things, those data points, plus the three presidential debates in October, are the remaining major opportunities for a twist in the race.

Not long after Obama finished speaking to the Democratic convention Thursday night, the Romney campaign unveiled 15 new ads for use in a blitz of eight battleground states. They were the usual suspects: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the announcement was the states not on the list: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

Did their absence mean Romney strategists have decided, for now, that those three states are out of reach?

Already, conservative super PACs allied with Romney have either avoided advertising in Pennsylvania or have canceled previous reservations of airtime, suggesting the state might have fallen off the list as a top-tier battleground. Independent polls have shown a steady Obama lead in Pennsylvania, though GOP officials say their private surveys indicate Romney still has a chance here.

The conventions also made something else clear: that both parties' strategists see 2012 as a base election. Pollsters have been remarking on how small the number of undecided or persuadable voters is this year - estimates range from 5 to 8 percent of likely voters. Even as Americans tell pollsters how weary they are of partisan rancor in Washington, the partisan divide in the nation appears to have hardened.

"I believe the actual, truly undecided is so minuscule that people already have impressions," veteran GOP pollster Frank Luntz said. "What they're going through is buyer's remorse [on Obama] and they're concerned about the alternative. . . . This election is being fought over thousands, not even tens of thousands of voters."

At their just-concluded national convention here, Democrats worked intensely to energize young people and minority voters, particularly Latinos; both groups were important to the Obama coalition in 2008, but polls show their enthusiasm has waned. Many speakers at the convention, including the keynoter, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, were Hispanic.

The Democrats also appealed openly to social liberals, with speakers trumpeting abortion rights, the administration's decision to require free access to contraception under the new health-care law, and Obama's support for gay marriage. All of this, analysts said, was aimed at cementing support among educated, white-collar white voters who helped put Obama over the top in 2008 - particularly women.

Mindful of Obama's advantage with women, the Republicans presented an array of female speakers at their Tampa convention Aug. 27-30, with Ann Romney nearly stealing her husband's show. But the convention seemed to be aimed mostly at securing older and blue-collar white voters who already lean toward Romney. Speakers stressed that Obama was bent on taking more from the middle class to distribute benefits to the poor, an appeal to economically stressed voters. Though the Hispanic speakers included Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in prime time, the GOP platform takes a hard line against undocumented immigrants - a stance that polls show is helping drive Latinos into the arms of the Democrats.

The thing is, Obama has to boost his numbers among non-college-educated whites, currently running about 30 percent in polls. That was why he brought Bill Clinton to Charlotte for a blockbuster speech: to try to win back some of the so-called Reagan Democrats, workers in small towns of Ohio and Western Pennsylvania whose values a younger Obama insulted in 2008 when he said that in hard times, "they cling to guns or religion."

Even so, if he gets enthusiastic support from more-educated, affluent white voters, he can mitigate his losses. If minority voters turn out at the same rate they did four years ago, when they were 26 percent of the electorate, and Obama wins 80 percent of their votes, he would need to get support from only about 40 percent of white voters overall.

In other words, if he rallies the base.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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