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Decoder Buzz

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is the politics that actually gets people talking. Decoder Buzz adds a dash of perspective to the stories that are setting tongues wagging. 

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visits a campaign call center in Green Tree, Pa., Tuesday. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Mitt Romney says he hasn't written a concession speech. Can that be true?

By Correspondent / 11.06.12

We are still waiting on voting results from key states, but in the meantime, we couldn’t resist commenting on a statement Mitt Romney made to reporters on his plane Tuesday evening: He said he’d “only written one speech at this point” – meaning, a victory speech, but not a concession speech.

To which we say: Really? Is he actually implying that, in the event he should lose Tuesday night, he’s just planning to cobble together a speech at the last minute? Or possibly even go out there and wing it in front of the cameras?

Actually, when we think about it, that could make for some good TV ...

Just kidding. We have to assume that Mr. Romney was either being disingenuous or picking his words very, very carefully – so that while, perhaps technically speaking, he hasn’t written a concession speech, one such speech may in fact have already been prepared by his speechwriters.

By contrast, in an interview earlier Tuesday, President Obama said he had prepared both a victory speech and a concession speech, saying: “You always have two speeches prepared because you can’t take anything for granted.”

We can’t really blame Romney for feeling the need to project optimism to his supporters. But we hope he and the president both appreciate the fact that, in many ways, the concession speech given by the election’s loser is a crucial part of the democratic process. It legitimizes the election the country has held – and it can be as important as the winner’s speech in how it works to bring the nation together.

A prime example was Al Gore’s concession speech in 2000 – which, of course, did not come on Election Night, but which was at least as memorable, if not more so, than George W. Bush’s victory speech. Calling for unity and the need to put country before party, Mr. Gore said: “I, personally, will be at [Mr. Bush’s] disposal, and I call on all Americans – I particularly urge all who stood with us – to unite behind our next president. This is America. Just as we fight hard when the stakes are high, we close ranks and come together when the contest is done.”  He added: “Now is the time to recognize that that which unites us is greater than that which divides us.”

Given the strong political divide in America, and the difficulties the next president will face – in terms of both the country’s grave fiscal challenges and the bitterness the losing side is likely to feel – the concession speech isn’t something either candidate should take lightly.

Classical studies major Omar Dyette, from Racine, Wis. (front r.), mans a table outside the polls at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, on Tuesday. The polls in this closely watched battleground state close at 7:30 p.m. (Mark Duncan/AP)

Presidential election: How soon will someone win so we can go to sleep? (+video)

By Staff writer / 11.06.12

When will someone win the presidential election so we can all go to sleep? That’s the question that lots of people asked us while we waited in line to vote Tuesday morning. We can’t answer that for sure, but it’s possible to pinpoint when the US public might begin to get hints as to how the 2012 vote will play out. Here’s a quick rundown so you can plan when to walk the dog/check kids’ homework/make a burrito run to Chipotle.

First, a technical note – some states have split poll closings, with voting in different counties ending at different times. We’re ignoring that for the sake of simplicity.

That said, the first point at which something exciting can occur might be 7 p.m. That’s when the polls in six Eastern states close, with Virginia being the most important. Formerly solid red, Virginia has become much more of a swing state due to the fast growth of the D.C. suburbs in the northern part of the state. President Obama won there in 2008 by more than eight percentage points, but averages of major polls have the Old Dominion as a tossup in 2012.

Mitt Romney badly needs Virginia’s 13 electoral votes if he’s to put together the 270 he needs for victory. That means that if the networks call it quickly for Mr. Obama, it might be time to start plumping the bedroom pillows.

At 7:30 p.m., the polls close in Ohio. Do we even have to describe how important Ohio is to the calculations of both campaigns? It’s the state Obama has visited the most during the campaign, though there’s no truth to the rumor he’s had his middle name changed to “Columbus." If Ohio is called quickly for one candidate or the other, it could be a great portent of victory; that’s unlikely to happen, though, given the closeness of state polls and the large number of provisional ballots that Ohio election officials expect to wade through.

North Carolina polls close at 7:30, too. That’s a state that Mr. Romney should win, perhaps easily.

Eight o'clock is when things will really start to happen. If Dan Rather were still a network anchor, this is the time when he’d produce a colorful saying, such as “hang on to your armadillo and don’t forget the cheese dip, the hat’s really at the cleaners now!” Fifteen states ending voting at 8 EST, including Florida, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.

Again, it’s unlikely these states produce clear winners right off. But Romney has to have Florida and its 29 electoral votes. If Obama wins there, it’s time for some bedtime reading. Conversely, Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes is, or was, supposed to be safe Democratic territory. Romney is now contesting that, and he had a big closing rally in Pittsburgh. If this doesn’t fall fairly quickly into the Democratic category, they’ll start to sweat at Obama headquarters in Chicago.

For Romney, a win in Pennsylvania could counteract a loss in Ohio, keeping him in the game as the closing times sweep west across the US.

Oh, you want to know about New Hampshire? It has only four electoral votes, but it’s a true swing state, in the sense that it’s full of voters who are actually persuadable. It’s the only state that George W. Bush won in 2000 but lost in 2004. In 2012, both candidates have spent precious time there in the waning days of the campaign. There’s little early voting here, so New Hampshire could show which way the late momentum has been trending.

At 9 p.m. EST, 14 more states shut their polls. Among them are Colorado, the closest swing state of all, and Wisconsin, where Obama leads but Romney has made a strong push. If either candidate wins both Colorado and Wisconsin, he's almost certain to win the election.

Michigan closes at 9 p.m., as well. The Wolverine State should be solidly blue, despite Romney’s family history in the state. If it’s even close there, it could portend a long night for Democrats.

At 10 p.m., Iowa and Nevada end voting. Most Nevadans actually vote early or absentee, so the outcome should get called fairly quickly. Obama has a comfortable, if not large, lead in Nevada, according to the polls; if he doesn’t win there, it’s not fatal to his chances, but it wouldn’t be good. It might be an indication that the Hispanic vote isn’t turning out for Democrats as much as they’d hoped.

Iowa is razor close. Obama ended his campaign there, saying it was because he wanted to finish in the state where his presidential hopes began in 2008. He could lose Iowa’s six votes and still find ways to reach 270. For his part, Romney needs the state badly.

After that, the states still voting will be mostly nonbattlegrounds. At 11 p.m. EST, polls in five West Coast states close, including California, biggest prize of all with 55 electoral votes. Alaska ends voting at 1 a.m., bringing an end to an expensive, clamorous, and close 2012 presidential campaign.

Fifth-grade student Therese McCarthy holds a sign representing Pennsylvania during a mock Electoral College lesson at the Erie Day School in Erie, Pa., on Nov. 2. McCarthy and her classmates mailed polling ballot notecards to students in 200 schools across the country to be used as data for the Electoral College program in advance of the 2012 presidential election. This year, Obama "won" in her class's polling with 417 delegates to Romney's 121. (Andy Colwell/Erie Times-News/AP)

Electoral College 101: How it works. Why we're stuck with it.

By Staff Writer / 11.06.12

The Electoral College: It’s much more than a boring vestige of 18th century political theory. It’s also the process by which US presidents are actually chosen, and a creaky machine that’s driven voters batty for over 200 years.

But it’s in the US Constitution (Article II, Section I) and it’s not going away anytime soon.

So here’s what you need to know about it to pass your Decoder 101 final exam:

• Point one is that under the Electoral College you don’t vote directly for your favored presidential candidate. You may think that you do, and that’s what the line on your ballot may say, but what you’re really voting for is a slate of state electors who say they also support the nominee in question.

If “Dancing with the Stars” worked this way, you wouldn’t vote directly for a couple, but for judges who’d already indicated they favored your choice. These judges would then travel to Philadelphia via horse-drawn carriage for a season finale aired live from Constitution Hall and hosted by a Ben Franklin hologram.

OK, that last part we made up. But the part about the elected electors is true.

• Point two is that each state gets one elector per member of Congress. If you’re Alaska, you get three, because you’ve got two senators and one representative. If you’re California, you’ve got 55, because you’ve got two senators and 53 representatives. The total of US electoral votes is 538. That’s why 270 will be the magic number on Election Day night – it’s half of 538, plus one.

We understand the math there may be more than any actual pundits in the crowd can handle. Our advice to them is to just relax and lie down on a green room couch until New York Times polling pro Nate Silver walks in and explains it to you.

• Point three is that a candidate who wins the majority of votes in a state gets all its electoral votes. The exceptions to this rule are Nebraska and Maine, where the state winner gets the two electoral votes derived from the two senators, while the candidate who wins each congressional district gets the electoral vote derived from that representative.

Got that? No? Perhaps that’s why the other states don’t do it: the Electoral College is complicated enough without adding layers.

Also there is no truth to the rumor that Nebraska and Maine are pushing for a constitutional amendment allowing the winners of their respective states, if different, to fight a lasso vs. chain saw cage match for two extra electors.

• Point four is that the electors elected by the electorate cast their votes in their own special election. On the first Monday after the second Wednesday after Election Day, the electors meet in their respective states for their choices to be recorded on a special certificate which is forwarded to Congress and the National Archives as part of that cycle’s official records.

Previous to this, state governors produce a “Certificate of Ascertainment” for Washington, which lists all the presidential candidates and their electors, who won, and so forth. We’d go further into this whole fascinating paperwork thing except we’d like some readers still awake at the end. If you want to know more you can read about it here.

• Point five is that technically speaking the election of the president of the United States takes place during a joint session of Congress on January 6th following Election Day. That’s when members of the House and Senate meet in the House chamber to preside over the counting of electors’ votes, which apparently take a long time to get to DC.

“The Vice President, as President of the Senate, presides over the count and announces the results of the vote. The President of the Senate then declares which persons, if any, have been elected President and Vice President of the United States,” concludes a National Archives summary of the process.

“If any?” Oy vey. We’d forgotten – a 269 to 269 tie throws the whole thing into the House of Representatives. That’s a subject for another story.

• Finally, our sixth and last point is that we got into this mess – excuse me, system – because the Founding Fathers faced a difficult and delicate task in establishing the way the infant US would pick its executive leader.

Think what it was like back in 1787. A group of 13 states, some small, some large, some slave, some free, was attempting to put together a process which satisfied them all. Plus there was no Google Maps, so travel between the ex-colonies was difficult and prone to wrong turns.

Many delegates to the constitutional convention just wanted the new president to be picked by Congress. But others were worried that this would lead to intrigue, and that the new leader would possibly feel beholden to those who chose him. (Yes, at the time they thought political parties, or “faction,” to be poisonous. Ha! If they saw how smoothly the president and Congress work together today to avoid doing anything about the looming “fiscal cliff” they’d realize their mistake.)

A core group feared direct democracy. The result was the Electoral College, a process which at the time seemed to stand between a one-person-one-vote approach and a congressional choice model.

The system’s details have changed over the years. At first, the electors cast separate ballots for president and vice president, with the first place finisher winning the top spot, and the second place finisher gaining the vice-presidency. After a few tries this was changed so that the electors cast a ballot for a two-person ticket.

(Here’s an interesting parlor game: try to think of the most poisonous Prez/VP pairing you can come up with under the old rules. My best try is President Al Gore and Vice President Dick Cheney.)

Today the system serves to balance the power of big and small states while spreading political power around the regions. At least a bit. Especially if you live in Ohio.

President Obama and Mitt Romney campaign in Bristow, Va. and Dubuque, Iowa, respectively, on Saturday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP and Charles Dharapak/AP)

Polls show a dead heat. So why so many predictions of an Obama win? (+video)

By Correspondent / 11.05.12

Is it just us, or does it seem like some of the suspense has leaked out of this campaign? In the final hours before Election Day, the mindset among the chattering class seems to have shifted from: "This thing is too close to call, it’s right down to the wire, a real nailbiter," to something more along the lines of: "It's close, but looks like President Obama’s got this."

Or as media-watcher Howie Kurtz put it in The Daily Beast: “The pundits have spoken: It’s Obama.”

Sure, plenty of caveats are still being thrown around: Mitt Romney could win, the polls are tight, yadda yadda yadda. But everywhere you look, the predictions are piling up in Mr. Obama’s favor.

In The Washington Post’s “Crystal Ball” contest on Sunday, only two participants out of 13 predicted Mr. Romney would win on Tuesday. For the record, that was the exact same number that predicted John McCain would win in 2008 – an election that was clearly heading for a more lopsided outcome than this one.

Now, some of the “predictions” being offered out there are clearly colored by partisanship. As in every election, there are strident voices on both sides of the aisle forecasting big wins for their guy (Fox News’s Dick Morris, for example, is predicting Romney will win with 325 electoral votes).

But most of the nonpartisan prognosticators seem to be calling it for Obama.

The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, a longtime professor of political science who produces a “Crystal Ball” newsletter of his own, is predicting that Obama will win reelection with 290 electoral votes. Veteran political prognosticator Charlie Cook has been more cautious about making outright predictions – but in his most recent column for National Journal, titled “Advantage, Obama,” he went through the electoral math in the battleground states and concluded: “Romney would need to win 64 of the 79 remaining electoral votes to win. Is that possible? Sure. But is it likely? It looks pretty tough.”

And of course, The New York Times’s political statistician Nate Silver – who has become something of a lightning rod among conservatives this cycle for his consistent predictions of an Obama victory – is now giving Obama an 86.3 percent chance of winning.

Perhaps most telling, this expectation of an Obama win is not limited to pundits. A newly released UPI poll, which found Obama and Romney locked in a dead heat at 49-48, also found voters predicting an Obama victory by double digits. In the 11 battleground states most likely to determine the election, voters picked Obama as the likely winner by 50 to 39.

So what’s driving this widespread perception?

One obvious answer is that the polls have shifted ever so slightly in Obama’s favor in the final days. It’s hardly overwhelming, but since political coverage and electoral predictions revolve to a large extent around the latest polls, the “echo chamber” effect may make any kind of shift, no matter how small, seem even more significant. Recent events have also seemed to work to Obama’s advantage – including last Friday’s better-than-expected jobs report, and his response to hurricane Sandy.

In addition, the growing prevalence of early voting has provided analysts with a more concrete metric – allowing prognosticators to base their assumptions not only on what polls suggest will happen on Election Day, but also on what early voting patterns suggest has already happened. They’re still basically guessing, of course, since the votes won’t actually be counted until Tuesday. But there are hard totals, and in many cases partisan affiliations, to factor in. All that has led many observers to conclude with more confidence that the president has a real edge.  

Of course, it’s entirely possible that this expectation of an Obama victory could be totally wrong. As we’ve written before, this election seems in many ways the mirror image of 2004 – when, in the final days before the election, most polls showed George W. Bush and John Kerry in a virtual tie, but with President Bush holding a very slim lead overall. In the end, President Bush wound up barely edging Senator Kerry, taking Ohio by a mere 136,000 votes (which gave him 286 electoral votes to Kerry’s 251).

In other words, 2004 was an election that basically could have gone either way (though, of course Bush did win). And notably, heading into it, prognosticators were far more likely to hedge their bets: The Post’s Crystal Ball was almost evenly split, for example, and Professor Sabato actually forecast a 269-269 Electoral College tie. This time around, the chattering class seems significantly more confident in predicting an Obama victory, despite polls that are in many ways strikingly similar to those of 2004.

We'll soon see if that prevailing view is correct – or if a lot of pundits wind up with egg on their face.

Voters crowd the polling cubicles during early voting in Oklahoma City, Friday, Nov. 2. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Early voting results point to Obama lead. Does that matter? (+video)

By Staff writer / 11.05.12

Some 34 million early and absentee ballots have already been cast in the 2012 presidential race – about 35 percent of expected overall turnout. In general, Democrats lead this early-vote race, but they aren’t doing as well as they did in 2008 – the party’s vote total is relatively lower, and the GOP’s is higher.

Does this matter? Is it a sign of weakness, as Republican strategists contend?

“As you go state by state and look at the specifics ... we are doing very well in these early and absentee state [votes] and feel very good about heading into the Tuesday election,” said Rich Beeson, political director of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, in a conference call with reporters last week.

It’s possible the early-voting shift is a sign of Election Day trends to come. The narrowing of the gap between the two parties could indicate greater enthusiasm on the part of Republican voters. It might show that the GOP has stepped up its game in get-out-the-vote efforts.

Take Nevada, a big state where early and absentee voting is popular. In 2008, such votes made up 67 percent of the total cast in the state.

Four years ago, Democrats led the GOP among early-voting Nevada residents by 12 percentage points. This year that gap has been cut to seven points, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. (Before Tuesday, voting statistics don’t reflect presidential votes per se. Instead they indicate the party registration of those participating in the process.)

Given that Republicans often turn out on Election Day in disproportionate numbers, “we feel very good about where we stand in Nevada,” said Romney senior adviser Russ Schreifer last week.

The GOP is thumping its chest in similar fashion about Ohio. So far, about 1.6 million votes have been cast in Ohio. Democrats' lead among these is about six percentage points, according to AP.

Compared with this point in time four years ago, fewer Buckeye State Democrats and more Republicans have cast their ballots. The net gain for the GOP is about 200,000 votes, said Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio Monday during an appearance on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

“As compared to 2008, we’re doing better.... I do think the momentum is on our side,” said Senator Portman.

But here’s the problem for the Mitt Romney campaign: All this could be right, but it's still behind. According to the AP count, Democrats have cast more ballots than Republicans in all key battleground states except Colorado.

And in some senses, comparing early-vote totals this year to those of four years ago is comparing apples to kumquats. In Ohio, early-voting days have been cut this year, for instance. In Florida, the turnout crush meant such long lines that the state Democratic Party has sued to get early-voting hours extended.

For Romney, just cutting the early-vote/absentee margin in key states might not be enough. Take Ohio, again – as both candidates would love to do. As the percentages now stand, Romney would have to win Election Day voting in Ohio by 10 percentage points to win the state outright, according to Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager for President Obama.

The early-vote numbers released so far generally are in line with what polls show – a popular-vote race that’s almost tied, and a clear but narrow lead for Mr. Obama in the most important battlegrounds. They’re getting a lot of attention right now because they’re the only vote numbers out there. The numbers that count, though, will be the bottom lines for all votes on Tuesday night.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters at State Fair Park in West Allis, Wis., Friday. He is now scheduled to visit Pennsylvania this weekend. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Might Mitt Romney snatch Pennsylvania from President Obama? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 11.02.12

Could Mitt Romney win Pennsylvania, a state that’s swung Democratic in every presidential election for the past 20 years? That question comes up because Romney himself is now scheduled to stop in Philadelphia for a rally on Sunday following a burst of GOP-funded Keystone State ads.  

At this point in a campaign a candidate’s time is a precious resource. Mr. Romney’s surprise visit to Pennsylvania thus suggests that his campaign sees an opening. Either that or they’re desperate, as Democrats charge.

Right now President Obama maintains an edge in Pennsylvania polling. Entering the race’s last weekend he leads Romney by 4.6 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of major polls conducted in the state.

But that margin is half what it was at the beginning of October. The most recent surveys show the race in Pennsylvania continuing to tighten, according to G. Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and Michael Young of Michael Young Strategic Research.

The reason for the narrowing margin is that Romney continues to gain on the crucial measure of which candidate would best manage the economy, according to Drs. Madonna and Young. An October Franklin and Marshall poll showed Romney leading Mr. Obama on this question by 47 to 42 percent.

“Someone didn’t get the memo about Obama’s inevitability in the Keystone state,” wrote Madonna and Young on Thursday in a RealClearPolitics post.

Starting earlier this month GOP "super political action committees" began snapping up ad time in Pennsylvania. The Republican National Committee has followed with its own $3 million investment in state spots.

But Democrats insist that for Republicans Pennsylvania is the green light on the end of Daisy’s dock in “The Great Gatsby” – a lure that recedes before them they harder they chase its promise.

The GOP always thinks that this is the year the conservative tilt of the state’s vast interior will outweigh the Democratic leanings of the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh urban areas, according to Democrats. Yet that hasn’t happened in presidential races since George H. W. Bush won Pennsylvania in 1988.

Obama campaign officials say their candidate’s lead in Pennsylvania isn’t shrinking – it’s held relatively steady since the first debate closed the race all across the country. They insist they never expected to win the state by almost double digits, but that they’ll win it nonetheless.

“Like Republicans did in ’08, Romney’s throwing money at states where he never built an organization and where he’s been losing for two years,” said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina in a conference call with reporters earlier this week.

It’s possible that Romney, resigned to losing Ohio, is trying to find a way to cobble together a winning 270 votes in the Electoral College, and needs Pennsylvania to reach that total. It’s also possible that the Romney campaign has spotted a trend running toward their guy and is spending money and time in Pennsylvania as a hedge and possible route to 300 electoral votes or more.

Either way, we’ll know in a few days.

Are we all 'Bronco Bamma' girl, so tired of election we could cry?

By Staff Writer / 11.01.12

Are we all “Bronco Bamma” girl, so tired of the election we could cry?

Don’t know what we’re talking about? You obviously haven’t wasted any time on viral videos over the last several days. “Bronco Bamma” girl is four-year-old Abigael Evans, a Colorado tyke who burst into exhausted tears after hearing one too many reports on the 2012 presidential election.

The You Tube clip of this sobbing tyke has drawn close to 2 million views. It shows a crying Abigael saying “I’m tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney.”

Off, screen, her mom Elizabeth Evans asks, “That’s why you’re crying?”

Abigael gives an affirmative nod, and hiccups.

“Oh, it’ll be over soon, Abby, OK?” says her mom.

Apparently the little girl had heard one too many NPR election reports in the car transporting her to and from day care, since her family doesn’t watch TV at home. That’s what her mom said, anyway. You know E.J. Dionne and David Brooks – when they get into it, it’s terrifying. It’s like pro wrestling, except they’re both wearing ties and neither one is rising from their chair or raising their voice.

NPR issued a formal apology. “We must confess, the campaign’s gone on long enough for us, too. Let’s just keep telling ourselves: ‘Only a few more days, only a few more days, only a few more days’.”

You know what we have to say to NPR about that? Liar, liar, your pledge-drive tote bag’s on fire.

NPR, as well as the entire US media, would be thrilled if the campaign kept on for at least a few more weeks. That’s because it’s a huge viewer/listener/reader attraction. The cumulative number of people who watched the three presidential debates was about 192 million. The first debate alone drew 67.2 million viewers. That’s over half the number of people who voted for president in 2008.

Yes, but average citizens are sick of the campaign, right? So Bronco Bamma girl speaks for them, like the Lorax speaks for the trees? After all, her You Tube clip attracted lots of comments seconding her emotions and bemoaning the length and negativity of the campaign.  (At least, it did until the comments section was disabled. Haters, you know.)

We’re not sure about that either. Theoretically we can understand how three months of attack ads would render one mute. But polls show voters have mixed views about the presidential race per se.

Let’s look at a new Pew survey that’s apropos. It finds that 63 percent of respondents see the campaign as “interesting.” Interestingly, that number has almost doubled since June, when only 34 percent made the same choice.

So as the campaign has progressed, more people, not fewer, got sucked into the drama that is Obama versus Romney.

As to whether the campaign has stretched on and on, the public is about split, according to Pew. Forty-nine percent judged that it’s gone on too long. Fifty-five percent said it was too negative. So the majority went with “Bronco Bamma” girl on that.

On the whole, though, we’d conclude from these numbers that sometimes an unhappy child is just an unhappy child – not a symbol of US populace frustrations.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in a neighborhood after he tours damage done by Hurricane Sandy in Brigantine, New Jersey, October 31, 2012. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stands behind Obama. (Larry Downing/REUTERS)

If Obama wins, how much credit goes to Chris Christie?

By Correspondent / 11.01.12

If President Obama wins reelection, how much credit should go to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie?

With news coverage over the past few days focused largely on the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, the presidential campaign has been relegated to the back burner, even as Election Day fast approaches. Yet Mr. Obama has still made it into the headlines – most prominently, with Wednesday's high-profile tour of the devastation in New Jersey. Notably, it was a visit that the state’s Republican governor embraced with open arms, calling it “really important” and telling reporters he appreciated the president’s coming “very much.”

Perhaps even more eye-catching was Governor Christie’s public praise of the president, saying in one interview that Obama has been "all over this and deserves great credit," and noting that he’d spoken to him on the phone three times in one day. In other interviews, he variously described working with the president as “wonderful,” and he called Obama's response "outstanding."

Bipartisan praise like that is hard to come by these days – particularly from a top surrogate for Mitt Romney, who gave the keynote address at the Republican National Convention – and many analysts have pronounced it a big boon for Obama, politically.

Of course, Christie’s top priority right now is – and should be – the recovery and rebuilding effort in his state. And for that, clearly, he needs the Obama administration on his side. As Russ Schriefer, a top Romney aide, told reporters, Christie is “doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing as governor of New Jersey.”

But surely, the Obama-Christie “bromance” (as the media have predictably dubbed it) must have some Republicans wondering if Christie’s own presidential ambitions have, once again, conveniently undercut the party’s current standard-bearer.

In truth, Christie has always been a problematic surrogate for Mr. Romney. On the stump and in interviews, his brash personality and blunt style often threatened to overshadow the more charismatically challenged Romney. And the question of Christie’s own presidential aspirations has come up repeatedly. At the Republican convention, Christie’s keynote address drew unusual criticism from conservatives who felt it was transparently self-promoting (he notably failed to mention Romney until 16 minutes into the speech).

Yet while Christie's recent praise of Obama may seem like yet another indirect slap in the face to Romney, we aren’t sure it will ultimately help the president all that much, either. Really, the one who is most likely to benefit from all the storm coverage is – not surprisingly – Christie himself. 

It’s in some ways similar to the relationship between President George W. Bush and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the wake of 9/11. Even though Mr. Bush’s response drew praise from both parties (at least for a while), it was Mr. Giuliani who was in many ways made out to be the real hero of the moment. It's understandable: After a serious crisis, it’s often the local leader on the ground – the guy who’s directing emergency personnel, sleeping just a few hours a night, wearing the same clothes for days in a row – who really comes across as being in command. The person who takes on the mantle of “leader” in the eyes of a public that’s hungry for leadership.  

Giuliani became “America’s mayor” and eventually parlayed his 9/11 response into a run for president (though by that point, much of the luster had faded). Now it’s Christie’s moment in the spotlight. And while the political reverberations may help Obama somewhat more than Romney, the real beneficiary, at least for now, is most likely to be Christie himself. 

President Obama waves to supporters upon his arrival in Green Bay, Wis., Thursday, Nov. 1, for a quick campaign stop before heading to Las Vegas. (Tom Lynn/AP)

Obama vs. Romney: What do their schedules say about presidential race? (+video)

By Staff writer / 11.01.12

Where will President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney attend rallies during the frantic final days of the 2012 campaign? That could be a crucial indication of what each side really believes about the state of the race as it nears the end.

Yes, in this electronic day and age, the candidate’s corporeal presence isn’t as important as it used to be. Yes, first lady Michelle Obama will be out on the stump, too, as will Ann Romney, Vice President Joe Biden, and VP nominee Rep. Paul Ryan. But the top person on the ticket is still the big gun. At this point, they’re going only to the places they’re most needed. No amount of spin will be able to cover up that fact.

So let’s look at what we know about their itineraries. On Thursday, Mr. Obama will be in Wisconsin, Nevada, and Colorado. Friday, he’s campaigning in Ohio. Saturday is Ohio, Wisconsin again, then Iowa and Virginia. Sunday is New Hampshire, Florida, a return to Ohio, and another stop in Colorado. Monday is (whew!) Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa.

Mr. Romney’s schedule isn’t quite as crammed, at least not yet. On Thursday, the former Massachusetts governor is supposed to spend all day in Virginia. Friday is Wisconsin and Ohio. Saturday, he’s hitting New Hampshire, Colorado, and Iowa. His Sunday destinations have yet to be announced, but on Monday, he’s planning to be in Manchester, N.H.

In case the above paragraphs flew by like a blur – which is how that travel will seem to the candidates, believe us – we’ll tell you what patterns we detect.

First, Obama will be spending a lot of time defending his Midwestern firewall. He’ll be in Ohio for at least part of four of the remaining five days of the campaign. He’s hitting Wisconsin three times and Iowa twice. Are Obama campaign officials in Chicago getting nervous about these states, most of which the president must win if he’s going to get a second term?

They say they aren’t, and they point to individual state polls as confirmation. “The president leads or is tied in every battleground state across the country,” said Jim Messina, Obama campaign manager, during a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

But those state polls have tightened in recent weeks, and political analysts are taking note. The Washington Post’s The Fix political blog just moved Ohio from “lean Obama” to “tossup,” for instance. It’s true that state poll averages still show Obama up in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa. But the Romney camp insists that early-voting numbers are running against the president and that the top-line poll numbers no longer reflect the true state of the race.

“Right now their firewall is burning,” said Rich Beeson, Romney political director, during a Wednesday conference call.

Second, Romney appears to be playing a lot of defense, too. He’s spending all day in Virginia on Thursday, for instance. It’s true that’s a crucial swing state, but if Romney could pick off one of the Midwestern biggies, it would be much easier for him to put together a winning total of 270 electoral votes. Yet at the moment, he’s got only one scheduled partial-day trip to Ohio. He’s hitting Wisconsin and Iowa once each.

His campaign has talked a lot about expanding the map, and they've noted they’re putting up ads in states Obama once thought safe, such as Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But Romney isn't going to Minnesota or Pennsylvania, unless he’s got a Sunday surprise up his sleeve. His itinerary would indicate that the expansion talk is a feint.

Mr. Beeson on Wednesday said, “Pennsylvania is a place that we decided to wade into as a path to 300 electoral votes.” To us, that was an optimistic way of saying they’re not going to spend any more time there than they already have.

In this Oct. 3 photo, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney points to President Obama during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver. (Eric Gay/AP)

Will presidential election loser blame hurricane Sandy?

By Staff writer / 10.31.12

Will the loser in next week’s presidential election blame his fate on hurricane Sandy? “First Read” over at NBC News raised that question Wednesday, and we think it’s interesting. That’s because it gets at the fine line between actual effects and magical thinking, which is part of so many expert narratives about political campaigns.

As the First Read gang notes, “Given how close this election is, it won’t be surprising if the losing side ends up blaming Sandy, whether it’s fair or not.”

If President Obama fails in his bid for a second term, his staff may turn around and point at the three days of campaigning he’s lost to Sandy-related activities. 

If Mitt Romney falls short in his bid to unseat Mr. Obama, his campaign could ascribe the loss to the perception that Sandy “elevated the president and stopped the momentum narrative for Romney,” First Read writes.

There are ways Sandy could really affect voting outcomes next Tuesday, of course. Pennsylvania got hammered; if flooding and lack of power depresses turnout in heavily Democratic Philadelphia, it is possible the Keystone State could swing to Mr. Romney, providing him a path to 270 electoral votes. If New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie continues to praise Obama for his storm response, it is possible some swing voters in, say, Virginia will be impressed.

Single events have already appeared to sway the course of the 2012 campaign. Romney rose substantially in the polls following his strong performance in the first presidential debate.

But “elevated the president and stopped the momentum narrative for Romney”? Please. Saying that wouldn’t be punditry. It would be soothsaying.

We’re not picking on First Read here: They’re not saying they believe that stuff themselves. They’re saying other people might say it in the face of defeat, and they’re right about that. Romney, Obama, it wouldn’t matter. Both sides have officials/surrogates/partisans who could utter that kind of thing with a completely straight face.

Which brings us to our main point: We’ve come to political punditry at a relatively advanced point in our journalistic career, and we’re constantly surprised by its imprecision. It’s like sportswriting (which we’ve also done) without the intellectual discipline imposed by the feedback loop of player stats and game scores.

“Shaping the narrative” is one of our favorite phrases. When you hear somebody say that on one of the shouting-pundit cable shows, your internal horse-patty detector should go off. “Defining expectations” is another. “Momentum” is in general a suspect subject, though it’s a bit more solid since you can always check actual polls. And so on. If you’ve made it this far, we’re sure you can provide plenty of your own examples.

So beware folks spouting off about the “Sandy effect” as if they’re sure what it is. Losers need scapegoats, and it’s easier to point the finger at a 500-mile-wide storm than at their candidate or his campaign.

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