One of the political experts I pay close attention to is Charlie Cook. His personal politics lean Democrat, but when it comes to predicting elections and reading political tea leaves, he has one of the best records among political mavens. I therefore assume that alarm bells were going off all over the Obama campaign when they read Cook’s column today in The National Journal:
We are past the point where Obama can win a referendum election, regardless of whether it is on him or the economy. The success of his campaign is contingent upon two things. First, when focusing on the narrow sliver of undecided voters, between 6 and 8 percent of the electorate, the Obama team must make its candidate the lesser of two evils. It has to make the prospect of a Mitt Romney presidency so unpalatable that about half of those undecided voters will begrudgingly vote for reelection. Polling focusing on the undecided voters reveals they are a deeply pessimistic and angry segment of the electorate and don’t particularly like either candidate (fitting, because they don’t tend to like politicians). But they show signs of being more conservative than not. One unpublished analysis gives Republicans a 10-point advantage on the generic congressional ballot test among those undecided about the presidential race. Close analysis of the numbers shows that Obama might have an edge with between a third and a quarter of the currently undecided bloc. That’s cutting things awfully close.
The second key is turnout. African-Americans look solid for Obama and very likely to vote in high numbers, but young and Latino voters’ turnout appears problematic. Obama’s recent announcement of a newly articulated Dream Act-light policy could help, but it is too soon to see any data showing measurable change. It is what many Latino voters wanted to see, though Obama did it less than five months before the election when it could have been done three years ago. After deportations had reached levels higher than those under George W. Bush, it could take a lot to drive up Latino turnout.
This election is hardly over: The totally unexpected could happen that changes everything. Unless the Obama team can discredit Romney, though, convincing voters that he is a ruthless, uncaring corporate buccaneer, this will be a hard election to win.