The Electoral College Cannot Be Bluffed

In May, after a round of interviews with senior Barack Obama advisers, I concluded that they were, to a person, cautiously confident that their man could beat Mitt Romney.

As I wrote then:

“Because the popular vote is expected to be closer than it was four years ago, the Obama team is not being coy when it admits this will be a close election. But as of the first week of May, it is not a close election any of the team’s members expects to lose.”

On the eve of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, after another series of conversations with White House and Chicago-based senior officials, I have reached — wait for it — the same conclusion.

Yes, the Obamans still have their share of concerns about the overall environment and the various elements that could yet go wrong. And yes, there is polling, such as Monday’s Washington Post/ABC News survey and a few state polls that show the race tight or tightening and the President below the key 50% marker.

Nevertheless, the current reasons for the Obama campaign’s confidence are the same as they were in early spring, which is appropriate in a race that has been marked by astonishing overall stability beneath the daily roiling chaos. Members of Team Obama still believe the Electoral College favors them; they see little or no prospect for the opposition to be able to make significant gains with Hispanics, single women or young voters; they think Medicare and tax cuts for the wealthy are untrumpable trump cards; they view Romney as a weak candidate, whose résumé and background leave him vulnerable to populist attack; and they think their candidate’s skills and likability are far too powerful to derail. That was Chicago’s theory of the case before and today.

Their apprehensions remain the same as well. An Israel-Iran confrontation or a conflagration that presents a foreign policy challenge and destabilizes the economy. High gas prices that provide a Republican pocketbook rallying cry that is more tangible for a wider audience than the unemployment rate. And gyrations of the stock market and Europe that panic the voting public. But while the White House monitors all these things with the fervor of a Politico reporter scanning his Twitter feed, it remains confident that none of them will be game changers to their candidate’s detriment come November.

Romney, Team Obama concedes, has shown himself to be a better candidate than expected. He has displaced Obama as the most prolific fundraiser in the nation’s history. He has, with few exceptions, exhibited discipline and precision in the months since he secured the nomination. He showed genuine boldness and purpose with his Veep pick (even while giving the Obamans ammunition in the process). And he has improved his performance on the stump.

Yet the White House feels the balance remains on its side, especially where it counts: in the key battleground states. Team Obama is certain that, barring a national collapse, Michigan and Pennsylvania are locked up for the incumbent — a reality acknowledged by a number of Romney senior aides. The Obamans see Romney as fatally flawed in Ohio, with his venture-capital background, opposition to the auto rescue and overseas financial holdings. Even North Carolina, which some handicappers have moved safely to Romney’s column, remains in play, the re-elect believes, because of its strong grassroots organization, which the Democrats expect to grow even more during their Charlotte convention.

Naturally, Romney’s more sanguine advisers reject this stacked deck, believing the Obamans are whistling past the political graveyard. Team Romney remains convinced that voters crave a more concrete form of hope and change, and that the anemic economy and the President’s failure to crack the 50% mark in most polls means he is destined to lose, maybe big, in November.

After I wrote my piece in May, some conservative writers suggested I was being hopelessly naive, bluffed by a blustering White House with little chance of victory and blind to the realities around it. Perhaps that is true, although I’ve known many of my sources, on both sides, for years. Their dueling hypotheses these past three months have not wavered: the Romney folks have made a solid case of why they will win, but the Obama people don’t seem to believe they can lose.

Related Topics: 2012, Barack Obama, DNC, GOP, Mark Halperin, Mitt Romney, RNC, 2012 Elections, Analysis, News, Republican Party, The Page, White House

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