I first began to write this post on September 12, the day when Mitt Romney was supposed to don the fall collection of campaign clothing and start new and fresh. And then Libya happened, and then the leaked videotape happened, and then came a crunch of state polls showing that almost all routes to electoral victory were blocked by a president with leads outside the margin of error. Gallup's tracking has provided the only comfort data for Boston, so perhaps that's a place to start. But when your pollster has to tell the press not to believe the polls, you know you're looking at an uphill climb to the presidency. Romney has high hurdles ahead of him. But his cause is not lost. Here are five ways he can still win. Some combination of the following events and contingencies will have to intrude upon the race for him to do so, but a Romney/Ryan administration remains within the realm of possibility. Keep in mind: There will be natural tightening (as opposed to the political Botox kind) between now and election day.
1. Romney has a stellar first debate, which galvanizes his campaign and allows late-breaking independents to finally see the man that Ann Romney so loves dearly. Likelihood: 60 percent. Every Romney route to victory has to include a great first debate, because the first debates tend to matter the most, and because Romney will have a relatively unfiltered opportunity to try to make his case, probably his last. Debate 1 is about domestic policy, and the economy is lackluster. If ever there was a time to step up and force Barack Obama to explain to the American people just what he would do to create jobs — if ever there was an opportunity to refocus the campaign back onto the jobs issue — it's on October 3 at the University of Denver. No doubt Romney will be prepared. Jim Lehrer, the moderator, is not going to throw anything Romney's way that he hasn't already anticipated.
2. Romney has a human moment. Likelihood: 40 percent. Yes, I know he is a human being, and I'm one of those reporters who has seen him when the camera is off and I can vouch for the fact that he isn't weird and stilted. But he is so cautious on the campaign trail, so full of anxious energy, that even his scripted soft moments come off as somewhat silly. So he needs someone to give him a bear-hug, or to shed a genuine tear, or to tell a dirty joke — something entirely spontaneous that expands the comfort zone. From the start, the Obama campaign has tried to portray Romney as too darn unusual to be the president, and that strategy has worked. Clint Eastwood's talking chair routine is not going to cut it. You can hear my eyes roll in their sockets as I type words like "humanizing moment," but the incumbent here is much more of a fully formed character than the challenger, and for people who haven't made up their minds, that matters.
3. Convince Democrats that they're going to lose. Likelihood: 30 percent. The more Democrats think they're going to win, the more enthusiasm their base will have, and the easier it will be for Obama to get to 270 electoral votes on the strength of only marginal independent turnout. Romney needs to somehow juice the game to scare Democrats into thinking that they're going to lose, which will set the ball rolling in the opposite direction. Campaign cues, even what ridiculous anonymous strategists whisper to reporters, matter a lot. Voters pick up on them. At the very least, Romney's campaign needs to enforce messaging standards that don't acknowledge the reality that Obama has an edge, and he needs to (somehow) get party strategists who dislike him and are signed on with potential 2016 candidates to shut their traps.
4. Iran does something stupid and dangerous; Israel attacks Iran unilaterally. Likelihood: 40 percent. This is a huge unknown, and it's unseemly to speculate about anything that would involve death and destruction. But the moment Americans become uncomfortable with the way their commander-in-chief handles a foreign policy crisis is the moment the challenger can step in with a better solution. Unfortunately, Romney has been fairly vacuous when it comes to foreign policy in general.
5. The Medicare argument works. Likelihood: 10 percent. President Obama's $716 billion Medicare ... call it an adjustment ... remains a viable political opportunity for Romney, albeit a very risky one. Though the Affordable Care Act cuts payments to hospitals and to private insurers that subsidize special add-on plans to Medicare (Medicare Advantage), it could well persuade a number of doctors to stop accepting Medicare in the first place. Eventually, the market will even out access, but in the short term, there is a grain (but just a grain) of truth in what the Republican ticket likes to say about Medicare. Ignoring the larger truth that Romney-Ryan's plan does a lot more damage to the product, enough scared seniors could swing states like Florida, Iowa, Nevada, and Wisconsin.
There is no linear path to victory right now for Romney. That has reality-based Republicans scared out of their wits. It has others, like Tim Pawlenty, scrambling for the exits (gracefully). For now, the rest can only grin and bear it.