If you’re looking for an answer to the question of whether last week’s events — Mitt Romney’s strong debate performance in Denver and Friday’s jobs report that showed unemployment dropping to 7.8 percent — change the trajectory of the presidential campaign, be patient and don’t rush to judgment.
There’s a lot of noise in the system right now. National polls were already tightening before either of last week’s events, after a September in which President Obama appeared to be opening up a real lead over his challenger. By the day of the debate, Obama and Romney were in a statistical tie nationally in almost all the new polls.
Before the debate, however, Obama was looking strong in many of the battleground states — unusually strong, given what we know from past elections about how different states perform. Some state polls taken after the debate but before the unemployment number showed movement toward Romney. More evidence is needed to know what really may be changing.
There’s been a demonstrable effect on Romney’s campaign since the debate. Republicans once again believe they can win this election. Through much of September, Republican morale was sinking almost by the day, as one poll after another seemed to signal that Romney’s path to victory was narrowing so rapidly that his chances of winning appeared to be minimal.
Since Denver, however, Republicans are fired up. Romney may be no better a candidate on the stump than he was before the debate, but because of the debate he’s seen through a new lens, particularly by supporters who badly want to see Obama become a one-term president. That enthusiasm should count for something between now and Election Day. Organizers in Colorado, for example, said the day after the debate that were seeing an immediate impact in their volunteer enthusiasm. That is no doubt happening in every competitive state.
The impact of the jobless numbers is harder to measure. Breaking through the eight-percent barrier is an enormous psychological boost for the president. As my colleagues David Fahrenthold and Philip Rucker reported in Saturday’s paper, it robs Romney of one good argument — that Obama was unable to get the unemployment rate below that level for 43 straight months.
So the consecutive-months streak is now over. But the unemployment rate is still higher at this point in a campaign than it has been since the days of the New Deal. Reducing the jobless rate to below 8 percent is significant but the economy is still far from robust.
Ronald Reagan won reelection in 1984 with a September unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, after peaking at 10.8 percent. His most famous ad from that campaign said it was “morning in America, again.”
In this recent recession, the rate peaked at 10 percent. The big difference between Reagan’s economy and Obama’s is that Reagan could point to growth rates in the year before the election and in the first two quarters of 1984 (when attitudes about the economy begin to harden in the minds of voters) far above anything seen during Obama’s presidency.
The good news for Obama is that even before Friday’s report there were signs that voters were beginning to feel better about the state of the economy. The percentage saying the country is heading in the right direction had risen in September, although a majority still took a negative view on that question. More Americans were expressing optimism about how the economy would perform in the months ahead.
Will Friday’s report accelerate those trends? Or are attitudes on the state of the economy more or less factored into the presidential campaign? It will take some more time for the answer to that question to become clear.
One thing worth watching is whether there is a coming confluence of national polls and battleground state polls — and whether it truly puts Romney in a position to win the election. This year, perhaps more than in any recent election, there have been two campaigns: the one that plays out nationally and the one waged in the handful of battleground states where most of the candidates’ time and money has been invested.
Has the 2012 election created a new model in which the battlegrounds perform differently than the national numbers?
Ohio is the prime example this year. Until last week, the polling in Ohio showed Obama with a substantial lead — at least five or six points and in some polls, including one by The Washington Post, even higher. Obama was enjoying a bigger lead in Ohio than he was nationally.
That’s out of line with how Ohio has generally performed in relation to the national numbers. Look back at recent elections. In almost all of them, the Democratic nominee has gotten a slightly smaller percentage of the vote in Ohio than he has nationally.
Obama’s Ohio number lagged more than a point behind his national number. Al Gore lagged two points behind his national number, although that may have been the result of his decision to pull out of Ohio and put his money into Florida. Bill Clinton ran two-to-three points lower in Ohio in his two elections than he did nationally. The one exception is John Kerry in 2004. He got 48.5 percent in Ohio (while still losing the state) and 48 percent nationally.
The question is whether something is different about Ohio this year than in past elections. States do change behavior. New Jersey is a classic example. It was once a true swing state, but in the 1990s it became, presidentially at least, a Democratic stronghold. California was once a competitive battleground but now is reliably Democratic.
There’s no sign that Ohio is moving that dramatically. But is Ohio now becoming more like Michigan and Pennsylvania? Those two states are still nominally considered swing states but tilt more toward the Democrats, which is why Romney hasn’t been able to put them into play this fall.
Have the effect of the auto bailout and now the drop in the national unemployment rate to go along with Ohio’s rate that is below the national average given Obama a boost in Ohio that changes the equation there? If that’s the case, it would have an outsized impact on the shape of the electoral map. Or will Romney’s debate performance help to snap Ohio back to its more traditional posture?
Those are among the answers that should become clearer in the days ahead.
For previous columns by Dan Balz,
go to postpolitics.com.