In 13 days, when the results of the election are in, how will we account for the whirlwind of the past month?
Democrats are already playing Monday Morning Quarterback, even though their team is still the favorite to win. Yes, really.
One school of thought holds that everything was going great for Obama until the debate, when he appeared listless, and Romney appeared human. This theory puts all of the onus for the momentum swing in Romney's direction on Obama's debate performance.
The more sensible way to look at how events transpired is to pull the lens back a bit. The Obama team was successful in creating a caricature of Mitt Romney as a heartless plutocrat. And then, at the debate, Romney came through as an entirely different person. An entire summer and spring's worth of ad spending vanished because reality didn't comport with the Obama campaign's strategic decisions.
The New York Times Magazine's Matt Bai has a variant of this theory: Romney was portrayed as a plutocratic flip-flopper for much of the race, and that kept his negatives quite high. Then, right before the summer, Obama's team took Bill Clinton's advice to focus on Romney's "severe conservatism," thereby giving him a pass for all of the flip-flopping, wishy-washiness and indecisiveness. At the debate, Romney didn't come across as a severe conservative, and Obama didn't (in that first debate) have the grounding to call him on his waffling.
I would add to this:
Undecided voters are not going to vote against someone because they "forgot" stuff. You have to disqualify the candidate with his own words and portray them as craven, as someone who will say anything to get elected. That is a tell. It shows people that the other candidate cannot be trustworthy, and if you can't trust him, then you won't trust him with the country. The core attack against John Kerry in 2004 was not that he was effete and out of touch, it was that he had no core. This wasn't true, but it worked really well. George W. Bush... he had a core. Obama has a core. But his campaign chose a line of attack that didn't completely de-core-ify Mitt Romney. If Obama had been as aggressive in the first debate as he was in the last two, where he pointed out, over and over again, that Romney was inventing himself anew (the etch-a-sketch candidate), if he did this THE FIRST TIME PEOPLE SAW THE TWO MEN TOGETHER (sorry for screaming), Obama would have had this election wrapped up.
Instead, inconsistent messaging allowed Romney's likability ratings to dwell much lower than they would be as soon as he had the chance to show people he wasn't whatever stereotype that Obama painted him as. Only once he did this, once he was playing at par, could Republican-leaning independents see him as the least worst of the two choices.
His momentum in the polls, I think, comes from renewed enthusiasm from Republicans; likely voter screens are very, very sensitive to enthusiasm at this stage. By this point in 2008, John McCain had already disqualified himself as a president among many Republicans by picking Sarah Palin, and there was historical momentum in favor of Obama. The novelty Obama represented and his promise cannot be understated as a source of his lopsided margin of victory; Republicans managed to grab back territory in many of those states by tuning in to the Tea Party movement in 2010.
Unquestionably, a million or more people who voted for Obama in 2008 will vote for Mitt Romney in 2012. But I really do think that most of these voters had decided not to vote for Obama well before the end of the GOP primary. What they needed was an alternative. As soon as they had one, Romney's numbers rose to their natural level. Nationally, he should be running neck-and-neck with a president who is presiding over a nation that is broken, if slowly recovering.
All of that being said, Romney's likability is much more tenuous than Obama's, and the idea that he's an out of touch plutocrat who wants to help his rich buddies did indeed gain traction. Romney's "new" moderate image is not as ingrained as that other caricature once was. Obama could and probably will win back some of the college-educated suburban women who flipped to Romney, and he may also convince enough of them not to vote for anyone.
What Romney did in debate No. 1 was to achieve his baseline level of support, which ought to be about 47 to 48 percent of the electorate. That swing tightened up polls in a number of big Southern states like Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina. But Obama's 47-48 percent held steady. And there is some evidence that Romney's post-debate momentum was actually his achieving a natural high — a bounce — rather than actual momentum, which is to say, he is taking on more voters than ought not be on his ship and doing so at a sustainable rate. Let's wait a few days and see whether all those polling trends converge towards this mean even more, as I suspect they will. I suspect that Obama will continue to hold statistically significant leads in Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada, New Hampshire, and possibly Iowa, with Colorado looming as a genuine toss-up. I think Virginia and Florida still lean Romney, albeit narrowly.
So much can happen in an instant, and so, yes, it is "anyone's race." But looking at all the evidence, the polls, and the ephemera, I've said it before and I'll say it now: The president is slightly favored to win re-election.