Obama vs. Romney: Who has the momentum?

Mitt Romney leads Barack Obama by a fraction in the average of national polls. But Obama is ahead in enough battleground states to maintain a lead in the Electoral College. In short, the whole race is too close to call.

By , Staff writer

As the clock winds down in Election 2012, each campaign is fighting for an elusive but essential ingredient in a close race: the Big Mo.  

Part of Republican Mitt Romney’s strategy seems to be using the word “momentum” as much as possible in campaign emails. One fundraising email from Mr. Romney reached this reporter’s inbox five times on Friday. Subject line: “The momentum.”

 “The debates have supercharged our campaign and the Republican team,” the email says. “We're seeing more and more enthusiasm – and more and more support.”

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Certainly, Romney’s energetic performance against a lackluster President Obama in the first debate, Oct. 3, galvanized the former Massachusetts governor’s supporters. The crowds at Romney rallies now number in the thousands, up from the hundreds. In fundraising for the first half of October, Team Romney beat Team Obama $111.8 million to $88.8 million.

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But Romney hasn’t been able to take that mini-surge in polls after the first debate and build it into a clear lead over Obama, perhaps because the president came back to life in the last two debates.

“While Romney gained significantly in the wake of the first presidential debate in early October, the lack of a continuing trend over the past two weeks helps counter a theme in some campaign coverage that Romney's support continues to ‘surge’ nationwide,” writes Mark Blumenthal, senior polling editor at the Huffington Post.

Currently, according to RealClearPolitics.com, Romney leads Obama in the average of national polls by 0.9 percentage points – within the margin of error. But Obama is ahead (slightly) in enough battleground states to maintain a lead in the Electoral College, 290 to 248 (with 270 required for victory).

In short, the whole race is too close to call. And in the ABC News/Washington Post poll released Friday, “some underlying shifts toward Romney paused,” writes Gary Langer, pollster for ABC.

In his analysis, Mr. Langer reports “no further gain for Romney on key economic measures” in the poll. “And strong enthusiasm among his supporters, which rose sharply after the first debate, has been essentially stable since – neither losing nor gaining more ground, and even with Obama, but not ahead.”

Even on the matter of campaign contact with voters – a critical feature of each team’s “get out the vote” drive – it’s a dead heat.

“While 22 percent of likely voters personally have been contacted by Obama’s campaign, as many, 23 percent, have been contacted by Romney’s side,” Langer writes. “That’s tightened from a five-point Obama advantage in contacts in mid-October; Obama similarly had a five-point advantage over John McCain in contacts at about this point in 2008.”

But in another critical measure of how the campaigns are doing – early voting – Obama has a lead, at least in certain key swing states. The latest Time magazine poll out of Ohio, released Oct. 24, shows that among people who say they have already voted, Obama is beating Romney 60 percent to 30 percent.

The Obama campaign estimates that 40 percent of the vote nationally will be cast before Nov. 6, compared with about 30 percent four years ago. Polls show Romney beating Obama among people who plan to vote on Election Day.

For more than a week, political analysts have been flagging the possibility that one candidate could win the popular vote, with the other winning the Electoral College, and thus the election, which happened in 2000. The 2012 version would put Romney in the position of Al Gore and Obama as George W. Bush, though, it is widely hoped, without any legal disputes.  

A look at the Electoral College map shows just how steep the challenge is for Romney. For example, even if Romney were to win all the states Senator McCain won in 2008, plus Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Colorado, Obama would still win in the Electoral College, 271 to 267.

“Partisans still hoping that their candidate will build a clear lead in the presidential contest are likely to be disappointed,” nonpartisan analyst Charlie Cook wrote in NationalJournal.com on Oct. 18. “The race seems destined to be a close one, with the outcome remaining in doubt to the very end.”

So far, Mr. Cook’s prediction is holding true.

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