The Latest View from One Prudential Plaza: Why the Obama Campaign Is (Still) So Confident About Beating Romney

President Barack Obama, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, speaks during a campaign event at Triangle Park in Dayton, Ohio, on Oct. 23, 2012.
Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME
President Barack Obama, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, speaks during a campaign event at Triangle Park in Dayton, Ohio, on Oct. 23, 2012.

11:55 a.m. E.T.

47% is probably the most famous number to come out of the 2012 presidential campaign. That’s the percentage of Americans Mitt Romney suggested he was writing off when captured on that famous secretly recorded video during a Florida fundraiser.

But 47% also represents the critical dividing line between how the Romney and Obama campaigns gauge the President’s chances of re-election, viewed through the prisms of their closely guarded internal polling data. In general, the Republicans see a ceiling of around 47% for Obama’s share of the vote in most of the nine battleground states that will decide this contest. The Obama team says it consistently measures their man above that magic line, at around 48-50%.

Both campaigns employ top-flight pollsters who are paid to scientifically take the pulse of the electorate in the battleground states and deliver to the candidate and his strategists an unvarnished view of the state of the race at any given moment. It doesn’t well serve either the incumbent or the challenger to sugarcoat the situation by producing poll results that overstate support (as some pollsters are famous for doing). The key differential between the Chicago and Boston methodologies appears to be assumptions about the final makeup of the electorate in the nine battleground contests.

If the President’s internal data is correct, he is indeed likely to win, pushing off a floor above 47%; using his superior get-out-the-vote operation to dominate early and absentee voting and hold his own on Election Day; and taking a significant share of the small remaining undecided vote. These numbers apply to Chicago’s data from the battleground states, where the President’s support in his campaign’s internal research has consistently outperformed his national poll standing.

In May and then again two weeks ago, I met in the Obama Chicago campaign headquarters with senior officials from the President’s re-election for wide-ranging discussions of the state of the race. On both occasions, I was struck by the expression of near certainty that their candidate would be re-elected. On Tuesday, I was back meeting with many of the same top advisers and found a virtually identical level of definitive sureness about the outcome. As always, the Chicago group acknowledges the race will be close, but claim the president’s October stumbles and skids have not changed their fundamental, positive view.

This confidence flouts the shifts in national and battleground polls that have occurred since the first presidential debate in Denver shook up the race, bringing to an apparent halt what many had seen as Obama’s inexorable march to re-election. The Obamans still insist they hold, to use their phrase, a small but stable and significant lead and express no doubt they will win.

In both my background interviews and a separate on-the-record media briefing from Obama campaign manager Jim Messina and strategist David Axelrod earlier in the day, Obama officials laid out the reasons for their sustained confidence.

Chicago is keying off of a daisy-chain of educated assumptions and analysis of existing data to inform their view of the race: the demographic groups that disproportionately back the President will make up a sufficient contribution to the total vote to provide the margin of victory; both new registrants and the early votes now banked are coming disproportionately from those same groups, many of whom are low propensity voters who might not otherwise cast ballots in traditional patterns; the make up of the small remaining undecided bloc is not starkly adverse to the incumbent; and five of the nine battleground states are near-locks for the President, enough to make it impossible for Romney to reach 270 electoral votes.

Here’s what senior campaign officials said Tuesday in each of these key areas:

THE COMPOSITION OF THE ELECTORATE:

Jim Messina told reporters on that conference call, “We think that people aren’t getting it always right about who and what this electorate’s going to be comprised of on Election Day. I think we continue to think it’s going to be a higher percentage of minorities and young people than some are forecasting.”

Added Messina:

“The Republicans are anticipating that minority turnout will drop off, but we already know that’s not the case, and that’s important as you look at some polls here. The electorate has been increasingly and consistently more diverse. Minority voting is going to reach an all-time high this year, projected as high as 28% of all voters in the ‘12 election. Most new registrants over the past three months are under 30, and nearly all—four in five—are youth, women, African American or Latino. You know, these are all groups that strongly support the President’s re-election. Voter registration has increased most among Latinos and African Americans…”

And a senior official told me this, “It seems like the Romney campaign is counting on a big drop off in minority voters and young voters to make their theory of the case work but there’s no indication in the historical data or in the early vote data that that’s happening or bound to happen. It seems like it’s been refuted in the polls, right now.”

And here’s my colloquy with another top Obama adviser:

MARK HALPERIN: So is it possible that their theory that you mentioned is correct? That, despite indications you have from the early vote, the enthusiasm for people who are going to vote for the other side will just be bigger and the data you’re looking at is just not accurately reflecting what’s going to happen?

SENIOR OBAMA CAMPAIGN OFFICIAL: I equate that with dynamic scoring. I mean, you know, ours is based on the science of what we know. Theirs is based on the faith of what they hope will be.

MARK HALPERIN: So, again, you’re very careful and meticulous and lucky to have a lot of experience but if you woke up and lost because you had modeled what the electorate would look like wrong, would that stun you?

SENIOR OBAMA CAMPAIGN OFFICIAL: We have confidence in our modeling. I mean, the honest answer is yes, it would stun me. It would stun me. Because we’ve been very assiduous about this. Put a lot of resources into it. I think that the early returns in terms of early voting, registration have been reflective of the work and, I think, are, you know, are supportive of the analysis. So, yes. I would be stunned if we lost this race because we modeled it wrong.

THE COMPOSITION OF THE EARLY VOTE

Said one senior official: “But the most important thing about early vote is one thing and one thing only: are you getting your sporadic voters to vote? Because if it’s just chasing people who are going to vote anyway than it’s just…a zero sum game. But all the data I see says we are getting our sporadics to vote at a higher rate than they are, which, especially for any Democratic candidate, is a bigger challenge because we have lower propensity voters. That’s exactly what we are doing and we feel great about that.”

Messina claims that in the battleground states, “two-thirds of those who have already voted are women, youth, African Americans or Latinos,” who are, of course, giving a large percentage of their support to the incumbent.

THE UNDECIDED

Contrary to the Romney campaign and at least some independent analysts, Obama campaign advisers do not believe they will be slaughtered among those voters who make up their minds late.

As one Obaman told me: “First of all, there aren’t that many undecideds. And let me say one things about the undecideds …. The undecideds— the structure of these undecideds are such that they very much reflect the electorate as a whole. They’re not like a divergent. And, while our standing isn’t as good with these undecideds as they are with people who are voting for us, our standing with these voters is at least as good or better than Romney’s.”

FIVE OF NINE

Chicago remains sufficiently funded and emboldened by its own polling to compete for the final two weeks in all nine of the battlegrounds: Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia in the South; New Hampshire in the North; Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin in the Midwest; and Nevada and Colorado in the West. As they have in the past, Obama campaign officials say they expect to win a high percentage of those states and conceivably could sweep all nine.

When pressed, the Obama officials with whom I met said that five of the nine stand out: Nevada, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and New Hampshire. In that quintet, Democrats believe the combination of their current leads in polling, early voting (where applicable), and ground game makes their chances of winning even greater there than in the other four. And given the Electoral College math, unless Romney picks off one or more of those five states, Obama would win a minimum of 281 electoral votes and re-election.

The Romney folks in Boston would, of course, dispute most or all of the assumptions made by their Democratic counterparts. As we kicked that alternate perspective around, the President’s team was not the least bit deterred, and at times defiant.

One grizzled Obama veteran told me, “Everything that we have gives me, every bit of data that we have gives me confidence that we’ll get there. And if you look state by state, everything that we have gives me confidence that we’ll get there.”

________________________________

Two other interesting notes from my interview:

  • The Obamans believe the Romney campaign is looking to buy extended blocks of television advertising time to run show-length infomercials, probably in thirty-minute blocks, as Obama did in 2008, but Chicago has no plans to repeat that gambit themselves this time around.
  • Some additional Bill Clinton events for Obama will be announced in the coming days, likely pairing him with other big names, a la his hugely successful Ohio appearance with Bruce Springsteen.

For the latest on the election, follow Mark Halperin on Twitter: @MarkHalperin

Related Topics: Barack Obama, Jim Messina, Mark Halperin, Mitt Romney, Stephanie Cutter, 2012 Elections, Analysis, Democratic Party, News, Republican Party, The Page, White House

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