Since Barack Obama and Mitt Romney last met, the electoral world has changed. Two weeks ago I (and many others) was ready to proclaim that the Republican campaign was effectively over, and that there was just about no way they could possibly win.
What a difference one debate made. At least according to the conventional wisdom. Take a look at this chart, and you’ll see the dramatic shift:The Romney campaign seems resurrected from the dead, and every day new articles talk about the great shift that has occurred.
To be sure, things are a lot closer than they were and the race has tightened. Yet even in this tightening it isn’t as if Romney has moved into a commanding lead–simply a position of parity with the Democratic ticket. Furthermore, two other charts from RealClearPolitics reveal that, based on the current polls, Romney is not in the lead in electoral votes, which is of course the only kind of math that really matters.
In one sense, this electoral vote contest is close as well. Take for instance, this chart, which highlights those states that seem likely to go to one candidate or the other:Remember, of course, that while the votes are pretty close, Romney does lag behind; not all of the toss ups are as equally available to him as others. Going deeper, if we were to follow the direction indicated by a number of polls to further predict the results of the election (definitively assigning electoral votes to one or the other depending on who leads in state polls right now), here are the results:This map even gives Mitt Romney the big state of Florida, and still he cannot reach the magic number of 270 electoral votes. Even if he manages to take Ohio (an almost must-win state for him and one where is not leading right now), that only takes him to 262.
Is it possible for Mitt Romney to scrap together the necessary electoral votes? Absolutely. Is it still harder for him to do than President Obama? I think so. Mark Halperin suggested last night that there is a reasonable scenario that has Romney winning, but all still rests on Ohio–a state that he has not really led in.
All of this is to say, of course, that tonight’s debate is vital for Mitt Romney. President Obama will almost assuredly not give the lackluster performance he did last time, and in this kind of contest a tie would very well go to the defender. A tie would serve, perhaps, to stabilize the changes in this race and retain the status quo. If things stay the same Mitt Romney still has ground to make up, and any shift of momentum back in the other direction means that Romney, who is not really winning right now, will be even farther away from his goal.
Because of the modified expectations for the candidates after the last debate, it will be incredibly hard for Governor Romney to emerge as the clear winner, yet only if he does can the energy of this campaign firmly be said to have shifted in his corner. In other words, if he wins tonight, the contest will be about Obama trying to beat Romney instead of the other way around.
If he wins…which I think is a very, very tall order indeed.