Toss-up in the making

In two weeks Mitt Romney has transformed from a weakened front-runner whose prospects this fall have worried Republicans across the board to a nominee-in-waiting at parity in polls with President Obama. The narrative of Romney’s deficit with conservative as well as independent voters — a result of an extended ugly primary — has shifted as his popularity has suddenly surged with both. At least for now.

Several polls show Romney and Obama within the margin of error. In his victory speech Tuesday, after sweeping five contests, in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island and Connecticut, Romney laid out a compelling reason voters should choose him over Obama in November — things aren’t getting better. Romney asked what Americans have to show for Obama’s first term. “Is it easier to make ends meet? Is it easier to sell your home or buy a new one? Have you saved what you needed for retirement? Are you making more in your job? Do you have a better chance to get a better job? Do you pay less at the pump? If the answer were yes to those questions, then President Obama would be running for reelection based on his achievements … and rightly so. But because he has failed, he will run a campaign of diversions, distractions and distortions.”

Few voters will be open-minded about President Obama this fall, and Romney knows that roughly 7 percent of voters in the center will either make him president or send him home and send the Republican Party into a tailspin for years to come. Currently the Electoral College map shows Obama with more pathways to 270 votes — 242 electoral votes are either solid- or lean-Democrat, while 191 are solid- or lean-GOP, with 105 toss-ups, according to the recent analysis by The Associated Press.

But the demographics and dynamics in polling paint a darker picture for an unpopular incumbent. Romney has advantages on the priority issue — the economy — as well as on energy and the ability to change the way Washington functions. Obama is expected to win the same groups he did in 2008, but to lose many of those voters this cycle. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows he has the support of Latino voters by 69-22 percent, African-American voters by 90-4 percent, women by 53-41 percent and young voters ages 18 to 34 by 60-34 percent. Obama lost white voters in 2008 and has continued to lose ground with that group, putting more pressure on him to attract more young voters, African-Americans, Latinos and female voters. But as disappointment has replaced hope in the 2012 campaign, interest in Obama’s campaign has dropped from 63 percent among young voters in 2008 to 45 percent. What’s more, unemployment is markedly worse among college graduates and African-Americans than four years ago. 

So the Obama campaign has concluded that female voters and Latino voters remain the most fluid targets. And Romney’s swing to the right on the issue of immigration during the primary campaign — saying he would veto the DREAM Act, and that the Arizona immigration law was a “model” for the nation — has had Republicans twitching for months. Now, as the issue takes the spotlight in a Supreme Court hearing, Democrats are hoping a show vote in the Senate, coupled with loads of rhetoric, will help juice a grassroots effort already under way to grow the Latino vote to new record numbers. Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDon’t disrespect McCain by torpedoing his clean National Defense Authorization Act Meghan McCain rips Trump's 'gross' line about her dad Trump's America fights back MORE (R-Ariz.) won 31 percent of the Latino vote, while President George W. Bush won 44 percent in 2004, and the Romney campaign estimates he must win in the mid- to high-30 percent range to beat Obama.

As of now, Romney has a way to go. But so does Obama.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.