Each side sees path to victory on Election Day

Both presidential campaigns insisted Tuesday that they are better positioned to win a tight race for the White House that looks like it will come down to the wire. 

President Obama’s reelection team argues it always knew the 2012 election would be close and that the momentum GOP nominee Mitt Romney received after the first debate has petered out. 

The battle largely will come down to turnout, where Obama holds an edge from the 2008 campaign and early voting efforts by Democrats. And while Romney has gained in a number of swing states, the incumbent holds a stable advantage in enough of the battlegrounds to prevail, goes Team Obama’s story.

The Team Romney version: The Republican has the momentum, he has all but eliminated the gap that the president once enjoyed, and undecided voters are peeling off the sidelines to support the challenger, who has shown himself in a series of debates to be a viable alternative to the president.

Both sides can marshal evidence to support their claims.

The president’s team emphasizes that he holds small but persistent leads in polling averages in at least three vital battleground states: Ohio, Iowa and Nevada. So long as he holds Ohio, the biggest and most important of those three, he could afford to lose Iowa or Nevada, plus five other battlegrounds, and still prevail. 

This theory assumes that Obama will hold onto Wisconsin, where Romney has not had a lead but is running strong. It also assumes the Republicans do not pull off an upset in core battleground states that have trended Democratic in recent years: Michigan, Pennsylvania or Minnesota.

Romney’s side notes his supporters have been energized since the first debate and that the tide continues to flow in his direction. Romney is now ahead in the nationwide polling average published by RealClearPolitics, for example, albeit by less than 1 percentage point.

During a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina insisted his campaign would not give up on North Carolina and that several roads to 270 electoral votes remained for Obama. 

Romney political director Rich Beeson shot back immediately:

“Three weeks ago Jim Messina was insisting they were ahead in the battleground states and today he is insisting they aren’t pulling out of any states. That doesn’t sound like ‘Forward’ to me,” he said in a statement.

Republican strategists said they were confident, but acknowledged Romney’s road would be difficult without a win in Ohio. 

“Today is the first day that I’ve felt I’d rather be Romney than Obama,” said Republican stategist Matt Mackowiak. “The trend-line is such that, unless something big breaks, Romney is going to end up ahead of Obama.”

He then acknowledged Romney’s criticisms of Obama’s bailout of the auto industry have hurt the Republican in Ohio. 

“The thing that makes Ohio different from Virginia and Florida is the auto bailout,” he said, adding only that “we’ll see” whether Romney could overcome that barrier.

Democratic strategist Doug Thornell said he felt “pretty bullish.”

He added, “You have seen a shift in a couple different states, but you haven’t seen a shift in Ohio. The president looks strong in Nevada and Iowa. Florida by and large looks like a toss-up state. We are where a lot of people felt we would be.”

But Thornell emphasized that it was vital Democrats approach the final days as if they were 5 points behind in the polls.

“It’s not that we are,” he said. “But we have to compete with a sense of urgency and not leave the Romney campaign any openings.”

The campaigns are increasingly focused on the ground game, comprising last-minute direct voter contact and get-out-the-vote operations.

During Tuesday’s conference call, Messina stressed the importance of early voting, arguing that “it helps us get out low-propensity voters, which broadens our universe.” He also cited statistics from Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin, among other states, to buttress the impression that the president is well-placed for victory.

A Romney campaign source countered, telling The Hill that in the pivotal state of Ohio, the Obama team was “not hitting the absentee numbers they need to go into Election Day.” 

Republicans also cite a number of statistics across the battlegrounds that they say prove they have a more than adequate ground game and will not be crushed in that area in the way that Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRand Paul ‘concerned’ about Kavanaugh Senate Dems tell Trump: Don't meet with Putin one-on-one McConnell: Senate to confirm Kavanaugh by Oct. 1 MORE (R-Ariz.) was four years ago.

The race is so close that the once-unthinkable — an Electoral College tie or a contest that, as in 2000, is not decided until after Election Day — now looms as a possibility.

“This thing is going to come down to a few votes per precinct in some states,” said David Yepsen, a former political reporter who covered many presidential elections for Iowa’s Des Moines Register and is now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

“God forbid we go through another 2000, but in some of these states we could very well not know the outcome on the day after the election,” he said.