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Presidential Race Tightens Again: Obama Still Leads, But Romney Gains

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It’s time for another look at the state of the presidential race, and it’s been an interesting two weeks. Going by press reports, President Obama has been on a roll. Attacks on Governor Romney’s record at Bain and demands that he release his tax records seemed to put the former Massachusetts governor and his campaign organization on the back foot.

But the polls tell a different story. Looking at what’s happened on the RCP “poll of polls” since early this month, there’s been a clear shift of momentum — towards Governor Romney. At the beginning of July, President Obama seemed to be pulling away. Now the Governor is still behind, but the race has clearly tightened.

Some of this is statistical noise; earlier this month the poll of polls was distorted by an anomalous poll that gave the President a 13 point lead. When that poll dropped out of the calculations, the race narrowed. But even discounting the noise, what we see is a close race in which the incumbent has a slight edge with the tendency for the edge to narrow over time.

Although there is a lot of predictable grousing from partisans of both candidates, the polls right now don’t look particularly partisan. The latest CBS/NY Times national poll gives Romney a small lead, while Obama’s biggest lead in a current national poll comes from a Fox survey.

Probably the brightest spot for President Obama is that polls in the crucial states of Ohio and Colorado still look pretty good for him. Barring a breakthrough somewhere else (Pennsylvania? Wisconsin? Michigan?), Romney needs both of these states to win.

For the Romney camp, the news is better in Virginia and Florida where polls show a tightening race. But the best news for the Romney campaign is that economists and groups like the IMF continue to slash their growth forecasts for the US and world economy. A president seeking re-election when the economy is slow is like a swimmer headed upstream against a strong current; if the economy is visibly worsening as Election Day approaches, the incumbent must swim up a waterfall.

From where we sit, July is looking like a lost month for both campaigns. President Obama hasn’t been able to get the economy to improve or to come up with a narrative about the economy that makes voters more comfortable with his stewardship and more confident in their future. Governor Romney, on the other hand, continues to be unable to connect with voters on a personal level, and the Obama campaign continues to define him as a a remote, big business corporatist who cares mostly about the rich.

On Intrade, the odds on a Romney win have dropped significantly — from as high as 43 percent earlier this month to about 38 percent today. That seems to suggest that Intrade presidential betters are influenced by the tone of MSM coverage as much as by independent study and knowledge. If that’s true, there could be some money to be made by systematically betting against the Intrade conventional wisdom on heavily traded contracts, but Via Meadia on the whole thinks that Powerball tickets are a safer investment than political betting sites.

So: the Obama campaign has delivered some hard punches and dented Governor Romney’s image, but this hasn’t improved the President’s position in the polls. The momentum the President had in late June has dissipated, and Governor Romney has resumed his slow upward creep in the polls. On the other hand, if the election were held today, despite a Rasmussen “likely voters” poll that shows Romney slightly up, it appears likely that President Obama would win.


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  • thibaud

    Intrade produces mainly noise. The Times’ Nate Silver plays it straight and produces the most reliable and accurate prognostications of anyone. Silver sees Obama as having a 67% chance at winning the Electoral College in Nov.

    Romney would have to run the tables on all the swing states, which would happen if and only if unemployment gets substantially worse between now and Nov.

    That’s certainly possible, but there’s another chance for the Fed to provide more QE coming up, and if the Fed does so, as everyone hopes and many expect they will, then it seems unlikely that unemployment will get worse.

    The other reason to be very pessimistic on Romney is the candidate himself. He’s a disaster.

    It’s obvious that Romney is hiding some skeletons with his tax returns. This will not end well for the GOP.

  • Eric from Texas

    Challenging election to forecast. Lingering goodwill for Obama against a very disciplined and accomplished candidate who is, at best, everyone’s second or third choice.

    I don’t thing QEIII is going to do much, but some secular trends in the economy that VM has highlighted will continue to help the US economy perform better than it would otherwise.

    Either way, a lot of problems, both secular and self-inflicted (by this administration) will be coming home to roost in 2013 and 2014. I don’t envy either candidate. Easier to be President in the mid-to-late 1990s like Bill Clinton than the mid-to-late 2010s.

  • Anthony

    Latest Quick Take brings to mind idea shared by former university instructor: “that the American people choose their own President is an idea that will die hard no matter how carefully one shows that the choice almost always narrows down to two not very different hand-picked men who have been long nurtured in the political pipeline, gradually rising to the top. That the American people as a whole ‘chose’ any president or other official in the sense of selecting him from among many possible can be dismissed as a notion beneath notice. What there is to public choice of political officials is negative – and itself controlled.”

    The aforementioned idea passed along more than thirty years ago remains an interesting perspective on Presidential Race Tightens Again….

  • Alex Scipio

    Well if Obama wins the Red states certainly should secede. There is no point in continuing to sacrifice the futures of their progeny for the failed Blue model that a lame duck Obama will put on steroids. Only 3 Blue states are at a total fertility of 2.1(flat: NM, NV) or higher (HI@2.2). The citizens of all other Blue states demand entitlement programs so expensive they only can be paid by taking wealth from future generations Blues are unwilling to populate. Those believing in limited government must, for the same reasons as stated in 1776, declare their independence from an overbearing tax and expansive govt regime and just leave.

  • thibaud

    Fearless prediction: when Romney’s financial machinations are finally brought to light, the really scandalous stuff will be what’s LEGAL.

    Levering up to pay himself and his partners – but not his investors – fabulous dividends. The “carried interest” scam. Caymans “blocker” accounts (what the phuque is THAT all about?). The retirement account that miraculously managed to grow into the millions, even though the maximum annual contribution for him and his wife is $12k. And very likely, his funds’ payment terms that probably enabled him to grab the lion’s share of the investment returns while his pension fund investors got crumbs (which is a huge reason, btw, that our public pension funds fail to meet their investment return targets). Etc etc.

    As Michael Kinsley says, the scandal is what’s legal, not what’s illegal.

  • Art Deco

    The aforementioned idea passed along more than thirty years ago remains an interesting perspective on Presidential Race Tightens Again….

    No, it does not. One of the candidates was, as recently as ten years ago, a private citizen who had never held elective office. The other was sitting in the Illinois state legislature. Neither ‘gradually rose to the top’; the latter in particular benefited from flukes (the public exposure of his opponents’ embarrassing divorce records).

    Nor can it be said that these two are ‘not very different’. One spent more than 25 years in the business world and the other’s experience of commercial employment consisted of 18 months as a copy editor for a firm which produced corporate newsletters.

    Which ‘not very differents’ did your quote source have in mind? Lyndon Johnson (pure career pol) v. Barry Goldwater (who ran a department store into his forties), Gerald Ford (common-and-garden provincial lawyer turned career pol, freemason) v. Jimmy Carter (naval engineer & agribusinessman, witnessing evangelical), Jimmy Carter (see above) v. Ronald Reagan (30-odd years in various different aspects of the entertainment business), &c.

  • thibaud

    “Not very different” is certainly true of Romney and Obama’s actual healthcare reforms – RobamaCare and ObamneyCare, respectively (or is it the other way around?).

    And to the extent anyone can tell what, if anything, Romney actually believes on foreign policy and Keynesian stimulus, the differences in those areas are likewise minuscule.

    For example, it’s hard to imagine Romney being _more_ ruthless than Obama when it comes to prosecuting the war on terror, given Obama’s penchant for targeted assassinations, his refusal to close Gitmo etc.

    And the last time we heard Romney interviewed on the subject of Keynesian stimulus, he insisted (“Of course!”) that he would NOT slash spending if the economy remains weak, as it almost certainly will into 2013.

    Where the two differ, of course, is in their biography.

    Obama’s rise had to do with his skill in exploiting our culture’s sympathy for his race- and meritocracy-based lifestory.

    Romney’s rise had to do with his ability to game the tax code. He’s not a “businessman” as, say, Steve Jobs or Henry Ford or even his dad were businessmen. Romney’s career has been spent in a recently-invented, uniquely American career path that can best be described as Financial Engineering, the main feature of which is the ability to spot and exploit biases in our tax code and our system of funding pensions.

    Re the former, the main instrument is exploiting the tax code’s favorable treatment of debt: Romney in the 1990s especially repeated the newfangled trick of levering up his portfolio companies and then paying himself “dividends” out of the borrowed, hence tax-advantaged, funds.

    Re the latter, Romney like every other PE fund manager and hedgefunder exploits the “carried interest” scam that treats his income as capital gains.

    In addition, as Simon Lack of JP Morgan points out (, investors in these funds get scr3wed by the payout terms whereby huge fees are paid to the PE or hedge fund manager in good years, with nothing clawed back in bad years, so that, over time, the lion’s share of the gains flow not to the institutional investors but to Romney and his ilk. This heads-I-win, tails-you-lose structure is one of the biggest reasons that our public pension funds are underperforming.

    The public hasn’t even begun to scrutinize Romney’s career. Low- and moderate-income swing voters won’t be pleased with what they learn.

    Combine Willful Willard’s stubborn and foolish refusal to tell the nation even a fraction of what he is asking from his own potential running mates with this legacy of gaming the system, and you have a train wreck in the making.

    The GOP elites no one to blame for this disaster than themselves.

    It should have been obvious that, in the wake of a global collapse created in no small measure by corrupt and self-serving financial engineers, the worst candidate you could put forth in 2012 would be a lifelong moneyfiddler with a passel of offshore accounts.

    Then again, who the heck else could the GOP have put forward – Perry? Santorum? Bachmann? Gingrich? Cain??

    The bright side here is that the nation is about to get an education, courtesy of Team Obama, in all the ways that the moneyfiddlers have gamed the tax system, suckered our public pension fund managers, hustled money offshore.

    As the Venetian said, It will go hard, but they will better the instruction.

  • Corlyss

    Thanks for the update. I was about to tap the Men Behind the Curtain on the shoulder and request one.

  • Corlyss

    Anyone else troubled by ABC’s rush to convict the Tea Party(ies) of the Movie Massacre? The fact that they grudgingly retracted it when the legend didn’t match the facts is immaterial.

  • thibaud

    Much more troubling, Corlyss, is Romney’s inability to state just what he believes in.

    Here he comes down solidly in favor of Keynesian stimulus, in his interview with TIME’s Mark Halperin:

    TIME: “Why not in the first year, if you’re elected — why not in 2013, go all the way and propose the kind of budget with spending restraints, that you’d like to see after four years in office? Why not do it more quickly?”

    Romney: “Well because, if you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5%. That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression. So I’m not going to do that, of course.”

    Of course!

  • stan

    Think it was Jay Cost who pointed out two ways that most polls are biased toward Obama right now. They poll registered voters, not likely. And they use a Dem/GOP split that seems extremely optimistic for Dems.

    Obama is in deep trouble, if his approval rating stays this low. Especially if his approval rating has any kind of Bradley effect. In his case, a good argument can be made that the Bradley effect is even larger for his approval rating than for voting intention.

    The real harm that Obama did to himself with his run of recent gaffes is that everyone now considers him a fair target for ridicule. All the squeamishness about making fun of him is gone.

  • Anthony

    @6, Both Harvard graduates, both systemically safe; however my point is the public without knowing it is manipulated by its preconditioned emotional response to certain loaded words (socialist, atheist, Mormom, government worker, etc.) often irrelevant to the man or issue.

    It is not that people select among candidates as they are told. They limit their selection as they have been conditioned by definiions containing concealed value judgments; they are mostly ruled from within themselves but by others who have antecedently determined their reactions. Far from being consciously free to choose, we may be prisoners of our own indoctrination.

    Finally, to your comparables (Ford, Johnson, Goldwater, et al) these men (and we are talking only men thus far) were long habituated to both maintaining and strengthening the real status quo; they were fucntionally men long nurtured in the American pipeline with little difference where it fundamentally matters.

  • Anthony

    Correction @10, last sentence: …functionally….

  • Art Deco

    Anthony, I know what your point is. I just think it is pseudo-sophisticated tripe. That they both put in some time in Cambridge matters little. They had a quarter century of living before that and after that, come from dissimilar families and have made dissimilar choices.

    these men (and we are talking only men thus far) were long habituated to both maintaining and strengthening the real status quo;

    That is an crude description of Goldwater and Johnson. Even if it were not, the reply is “So are most people”, unless the status quo is intolerable. What alternative you got in mind that does not replace the existing evils with new ones?

  • Anthony

    @14, you may think you have my point but you have misrepresented it. Examine social context by which our officials are chosen. Personalities of our former Presidents and contenders were interjected by you – I was illuminating systemic context in response; at bottom despite variations you cite basic similarities remain…. For me, end of thread

  • Art Deco

    You can compare and contrast just about anyone and find similarities and differences. What of it?

  • Kris

    Whoa, Anthony in a debate?! Who spiked the punch? 🙂

  • Eurydice

    @Anthony #16 – What I find more interesting is how candidates’ differences or similarities end up being held hostage by the realities of the presidency. Candidate Obama was presented as the opposite of President Bush – but, in effect, he turned out pretty much the same.

    As for the control of choices, nothing beats living in a relentlessly one-color state. Here in Massachusetts, discussing presidential politics has the same relevancy as discussing the latest reality show competition.

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