Returning to the fundamentals

With Election Day fast approaching, let’s toss the confusing welter of polls for a moment and return to the fundamentals I have been emphasizing here for years.

First is the economy. It’s not good, but that’s not the key point. We are, as calculus geeks would say, a first-derivative nation; we care more about change than about levels; voters focus more on where things have been headed than on where they stand. And things are changing for the better. Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index was improving, albeit in fits and starts, from January through June, when it began to crash, reaching a nadir in early September. Today, the index jumped to its highest level in the last five years, an improvement registered among independents as well as Democrats.


Objective economic indicators tell a similar story. The rate of growth in real disposable income shrank in June, then in July and again in August. In September, the rate of change stopped declining for the first time in months. Over a longer period, comparing this September to last, real disposable income grew by 1.9 percent. The economic fundamentals predict a very close race; thus, other factors become critically important.

A second fundamental is the president’s one-term incumbency, which is an asset, as Americans are reluctant to throw a party out of the White House before affording it a reasonable chance to complete its work. In the past hundred years, voters have only once denied a president a second party term (Jimmy Carter in 1980; Bush the father was running for a fourth party term when he lost).

Demography also still works to the president’s advantage. In 2000, blacks and Hispanics constituted about 16 percent of the electorate, rising to 22 percent in 2008 — and it could be higher in 2012. In some key states it’s already clear that Hispanic participation will increase. The president will still need 38-39 percent of the white vote to prevail, and he is not quite there yet, but close.

Finally, the president retains more routes to 270 electoral votes than does Mitt Romney, making it more likely he will succeed in getting there. Pundits love to identify one state as decisive and, as is often the case, they’ve picked Ohio. As an Ohioan I am delighted with all the attention to the Buckeye State, but it’s overdrawn. Obama can win without Ohio, though Romney probably cannot. The good news: Just one of the last 11 polls in Ohio has shown a Romney lead, and the exception was the reliably Republican Rasmussen. While all these polls show the race close and even tied, the likelihood of Romney winning unless some other polls start to give him the lead is low.

But Ohio isn’t the whole ballgame. Florida remains in play. While most polls there lean toward Romney, several show Obama with narrow leads, making this more of a toss-up. Virginia, too, remains a toss-up.

The president can lose Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and Virginia and still win, with victories in Nevada and Colorado. I can say with some certainty that the president will win Nevada. Colorado remains a toss-up, with two of the last five polls giving Obama the lead, two showing Romney ahead and one an exact tie.

Meanwhile, there are few breaches in the blue wall, with New Hampshire and Iowa leaning strongly toward the president. Romney won’t win Wisconsin or Pennsylvania either.

The president does not have to win all, or even most, of the toss-ups. It’s just not likely they will all fall against him.

So I end up exactly where I concluded in December 2011: The race will be exceedingly close, but President Obama is likely to emerge as the winner, at least in the Electoral College.

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.