Four days out, it looks like Mitt Romney.
October has come and gone with no surprise, with just a slow, plodding accumulation of signs and portents suggesting that “the One” who has come will soon be gone.
The polls are tight, and the numbers are steady, but it begins to feel like 1980 again, when a tight race between President Carter and Ronald Reagan broke open over the last weekend. His own pollsters went to Mr. Jimmy and Miss Rosalynn on Monday morning to tell them that “the numbers just aren’t there.”
If President Obama has taken such a meeting, there’s no hint of it. Both the Obama and Romney camps naturally predict victory, but the president’s men are a little more emphatic than their numbers warrant, which suggests they may be working hard to keep hope alive.
Mr. Obama will close his campaign Monday where it all started, with a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, after stops in Wisconsin and Ohio. The attention he’s paying to states he had locked up a fortnight ago tells a lot about how the campaign ends. Iowa can contribute just six votes to what the president expected would be a landslide.
The president has been to Iowa 11 times this year; Mr. Romney will make his 14th visit with a rally in Dubuque on Saturday. He will close on Monday in New Hampshire, fighting for four electoral votes. It may be a poetic way to end a long and contentious marathon, but sentiment has nothing to do with it. Neither man would be struggling in the dying hours of the campaign for nickels and dimes if the race were a settled issue.
The latest Iowa polls show an exceedingly tight race: A Marist poll, out Thursday, gives the president a 6-point lead, and a poll by the University of Iowa the day before shows the president ahead by just 42.7 percent to 41 percent. Fighting for fractions is no portent of a landslide.
Nevertheless, some wise heads say they see the signs of a dramatic and decisive break toward the challenger. The important swing states, particularly Ohio, may have swung. Dick Morris, the campaign-consultant-turned-pundit who invented Bill Clinton in Arkansas and in two presidential campaigns, has turned caution aside to speak of a landslide, though he calls it a vote of “historic proportions.”
The campaign has reached a tipping point, and it goes back to the first debate. “Reasonable voters saw that the voice of hope and optimism and positivism was Romney, while the president was only a nit-picking, quarrelsome, negative figure,” he says. “The contrast does not work in Obama’s favor.”
Indeed. The Obama campaign spent a hundred million dollars on television advertising to paint Mitt Romney as an evil Wall Street villain, lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills, making the kids’ dog ride on the roof of the car. He was the kind of villain who would shoot Big Bird and serve it for supper with imported champagne.
Then came the first debate, revealing Mitt Romney as an ordinary rich guy with beer-and-hamburger tastes like the rest of us. The president revealed himself to be spoiled and petulant, in a pout for his teleprompter and barely able to hide his irritation at having to answer questions like any other candidate. It’s been uphill for him since.
Mr. Romney slowly overtook the president in the polls and has held a small but consistent advantage since. Over the past week, by the reckoning of The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Romney has led in 19 of 31 national surveys, the president in just seven. Mr. Romney’s rate has been above 50 percent in 10 of those polls, Mr. Obama’s in none.
“It comes down to numbers,” wrote Karl Rove, the genius of George W. Bush’s two successful campaigns, in The Wall Street Journal. “And in the final days of this presidential race, from polling data to early voting, they favor Mitt Romney.”
Soon enough, none of these numbers, accurate or not, will matter. We’ll vote, and that will settle it. Only one prediction here: The Electoral College, as it nearly always does, will follow the popular vote, and the national popular vote winner will outperform the polls.