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Romney’s uphill road

After a long, lovely hiatus, marred only by too little real vacation, it’s an opportune moment to examine just where the race for president stands as we enter the contest’s final weeks. For many months, the commentariat has wisely warned observers to pay no attention to the early polls — I even argued here that too much focus on early polling could lead to a net loss of knowledge about the race. No longer. It’s time to discard that advice and start paying attention.

Why? Because history, albeit an imperfect guide, suggests that polls are starting to have real predictive value. In 13 of the last 15 presidential elections, the leader after the two conventions has gone on to win the popular vote on Election Day. The two remaining cases found the candidates tied after the conventions, with victory going to the candidate who led going into the conventions.

A spectacular Democratic conclave has given the president a bounce — and the lead — as the candidates emerged from their conventions. Every poll taken since, whether by ABC/Washington Post (Obama +6) or CNN/ORC (+6) or even the reliably Republican Rasmussen Poll (+5), has found President Obama in the lead. Furthermore, with just a few exceptions, polls before the convention also had the president out front, though by smaller margins.

Thus, two facts deserve our attention:

To win, Mitt Romney will have to do what no candidate has done since regular polling began in 1952 — win after emerging from the conventions with a vote deficit.

Romney’s campaign missed one of its most important opportunities to change the dynamic of the race. Conventions don’t win elections, but they are one of the few times candidates command the national stage virtually unimpeded. That’s why a few, just a few, have produced switches in the lead. Not so the Romney convention — and there are not many other such opportunities left.

In his “Don’t worry, be happy” memo to the Romney campaign, my friend and GOP colleague, Neil Newhouse, implored the faithful to ignore the polls and, combing through history in search of hope, found one case on which to hang Mitt Romney’s hat — 1980. 

By Neil’s telling, “President Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan by a near double digit margin late in the fall in 1980,” but, of course, it was Reagan who won decisively.

The truth of the tale is a bit more complicated. There was far less public polling then, but while Gallup had Reagan and Carter tied after the conventions, a series of other surveys put Reagan in the lead then. Going into their one and only debate, Reagan’s own poll (conducted by the late, great Dick Wirthlin) gave the former California governor a 5- to 8-point lead, while ABC/Harris pegged the Reagan margin at 3 and NBC/AP at 6. By all accounts, quantitative and impressionistic, Reagan trounced Carter in their late debate, after which the challenger’s margin continued to expand. 

So in fact, Gallup notwithstanding, it is likely Reagan did lead after the conventions (and was certainly not behind, as Romney is), and his sterling debate performance helped expand that lead.

While the example thus does not quite provide the breath of life Romney aides were hoping for, Newhouse’s argument does offer an important caution to both analysts and the Romney campaign itself. None of us should conclude this race is over. Far from it. Lots of twists and turns remain, while the outcome remains uncertain at best. Anyone who thinks otherwise is either endowed with the gift of prophecy or the curse of foolishness.

Second, the Romney campaign should recognize few opportunities remain to fundamentally alter the dynamic of this race, with the debates the only scheduled, foreseeable opportunity. Romney needs to look at those debates as his last best chance — because they are.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.