Campaigns look for bandwagon support as clock ticks down to Election Day

"We’re going to win — but, without you, we might lose."

This is the sometimes-awkward message that both presidential campaigns are blasting out as the clock ticks down to Election Day.

Both sides have adopted confident tones meant to energize volunteers and create the same kind of bandwagon effect sports teams enjoy on their way to winning a championship. Convincing undecided voters to join the fan base, for Romney and President Obama alike, could be the difference between winning and losing in an election likely to come down to turnout in a handful of states. 

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At the same time, the two campaigns must also keep supporters from growing overconfident and thinking the race is in the bag. Neither side can afford any complacency. 

“It’s smart to create the impression that your campaign is on the move and is going to win," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked on then-Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential bid. "But you also want people to feel they have to turn out. Given the amount of coverage, it’s extremely difficult to calibrate that to the right level.”

The desire to influence the media coverage of a race’s final stages is also a big factor in the campaign messaging.

“Part of it, for both campaigns, is always a head-fake,” Lehane said. 

Hard though it might be, the candidates themselves are centrally involved in the effort.

At a rally in central Ohio on Thursday, Romney told his supporters, “I want you to know how optimistic I am. This is about to get real good.”

But he was careful to temper the upbeat message.

“We’ve got to make sure we win here in Ohio,” he said. At an earlier stop elsewhere in the state, he encouraged his supporters not only to vote, but also to help others get to the polls and even try to convert “someone else who might be thinking about voting for the other side.”

Were that not to happen, Romney implied, the GOP dream of retaking the White House might expire.

Just a few hours later, President Obama sounded a similar message even more starkly when he visited a campaign office in his old Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago.

“This is going to be a close election, so we've just got to work really hard over these next 12 days. If we let up and our voters don't turn out, we could lose this election,” Obama told his volunteers, according to a pool report.

He swiftly added, “Now the good news is, if our voters do turn out, we will definitely win the election.”

Striking the right balance of hope and fear is a challenge for any campaign. But the special dynamics at play in the closing days of this year’s presidential race make it especially difficult.

Going into the first debate on Oct. 3, Obama had a small but stable lead in most polls. That advantage was thoroughly scrambled by the heavy defeat he was widely perceived to have suffered in that encounter.

Both sides agree that Romney received a boost in the wake of the first debate. But they concur on little else. Obama’s team argues that the Republican’s momentum has petered out and that the president holds a more solid advantage than the media are acknowledging.

“There is an illusion of volatility that is created when you have 90 public polls coming out every day,” Obama’s senior strategist David Axelrod said during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “The fact of the matter is that this race has been remarkably stable over a long period of time. ... This race has settled into exactly where we thought it would be.”

Romney aides, by contrast, insist that the shape of the race is fluid and that the tide is running their way.

“We are seeing great momentum for Gov. Romney on the ground,” a campaign source told The Hill earlier this week. Asked about specific states that seem somewhat impervious to this momentum, notably Ohio, the source insisted, “Just 10 days ago, the press was asking if we were going to pull out of Ohio, and now in every credible poll we are tied.”

Each campaign, of course, has its own view of which polls are “credible” — a criterion that closely corresponds with those surveys that show them in the best position.

There is, however, genuine confusion over where the race stands. Two major tracking polls on Thursday put Romney up by 3 points nationwide. The polls, from Gallup and ABC/Washington Post, both found the same result: Romney 50 percent; Obama 47.

But the appearance of consistency in Romney’s favor is mixed up by state-level polls. Among the battleground states, the RealClearPolitics polling average shows Obama ahead in Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, Iowa and Wisconsin. If those findings were reflected in the actual results, Obama would secure 281 electoral votes, 11 more than he needs to win reelection.

Still, Republicans display confidence that the Romney bandwagon is rolling.

“There is a snowball effect among Republicans who feel that they have a real opportunity to win the White House,” GOP strategist Ron Bonjean told The Hill. He cited an increase, across the board, in “the amount of people showing up for Romney rallies, the amount of yard signs on people’s lawns, the fact that there are more people willing to make phone calls and get involved.”

Democrats, however, profess a lack of concern about these claims, insisting that what they see as the superiority of the Obama campaign’s grassroots infrastructure will carry the day.

The Democratic National Committee’s executive director, Patrick Gaspard, released a memo Thursday accusing the GOP of engaging in a “ground-game bluff” about early voting statistics. “Democrats currently enjoy solid leads,” Gaspard wrote.

Even as both sides engage in pitched battles to shape the narrative of the race, some experts are skeptical about how much the skirmishing matters.

“The thing we’re all talking about this week — Romney’s momentum or non-momentum — is really inside baseball,” said John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.

“Undecided voters are not paying attention to what this polls says or doesn’t say. It’s like asking someone who doesn’t care about baseball whether the coach was right to put in a right-handed pitcher against a left-handed batter on a day when the humidity was high.”

But Lehane insisted that, for both campaigns, the quest to shape perceptions was a vital one.

“Are the closing arguments framed as ‘A confident Obama offers a closing argument’ or 'A trailing Romney struggles to catch up'? These things have an impact,” he said.