By Susan Estrich
There is a lot about this election season that’s easy to explain.
Mitt Romney won the first debate by a lot, and President Obama won the second and third, but by smaller margins. Romney’s victory meant more because it established that he was a credible candidate, which is a threshold a challenger can’t fail to meet.
The race is close because — unless you’re in the middle of a war — it’s always the economy.
If the economy were better, Obama would have this race nailed. As I used to say about some of my (losing) candidates, they had no problem that two points of unemployment couldn’t solve. If unemployment were two points lower, the fat lady would be singing.
There’s not a lot of enthusiasm out there. I ran into a woman on the day of the last debate — a politically savvy, usually engaged Democrat — and she said to me, “Aren’t you sick of the whole thing?” Actually, I’m not. Actually, as a former Hillary supporter, I think the president has done more to keep his promises than I expected. I’m a lot less disappointed than the people who convinced themselves four years ago that Obama could walk on water, much less do it in the swamp that is Washington, D.C., figuratively and literally.
The absence of enthusiasm on the Democratic side is not much different from what I’m seeing on the Republican side. Some Republicans tell me Romney is actually a better candidate than they thought he’d be, which is another way of saying he’s not as bad as they feared he’d be. I expect that if he wins, conservatives will be all over him from Day One for not being conservative enough. Some already are.
So what will decide this election?
The ground game. Field operations and GOTV don’t mean much when you have a five-point lead — or are losing by five points. A point or two is the difference they generally make. Right now, a point or two probably decides the election.
A spike of news, good or bad, between now and the election, either personal (remember that last-minute drunk driving story that dropped on Bush) or economic. It’s a little late, and a little obvious, for either side to manufacture an October surprise, but it’s still October.
What will the candidates do in the final days? Visit the same six or seven states they’ve been visiting. Probably go positive while the Super-PACs go negative. Obama will try to hold his lead among women and cut Romney’s among men. Reverse for Romney.
What about these polls that are all over the place? Which ones should you believe? The ones in the middle tend to be the most reliable.
Which campaign did the better job? The one that wins. Those folks will be credited with pulling off a close race. The ones who lose will be second-guessed and will second-guess themselves until the cows come home, because any small thing done differently might have changed the outcome. Losing a landslide is in many ways easier.
Will this election produce a mandate? No. You don’t get a mandate when you win by a point or two. Obama isn’t likely to get his tax increase on the wealthy. Romney isn’t likely to get a big increase in defense spending. Unemployment will probably keep inching down no matter who wins, and whoever does will take credit.
But it still matters. It matters in terms of who is on the Supreme Court, environmental regulations, accessibility to health care and a host of other issues, most of which haven’t received the attention they deserve during this campaign.
Many of the people who will decide this election may have been watching baseball or football during the debates while the rest of us rooted for the candidate to whom we’re already firmly committed. But the election matters more.
As for who will win it, don’t count out the one factor no one can predict or control: plain old luck. If it’s Lady Luck, it will be Obama.