Commentary Magazine


Two Beatable Candidates Create Deadlock

The release of a new swing state poll from Purple Poll Strategies confirms what we have been seeing for months: the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney is looking like a dead heat. Romney has closed the gap nationally in this poll from a 4-point deficit to only 2 points with state polls in Florida, Virginia, Ohio and Colorado producing similar results that are well within the margin of error. Despite an avalanche of spending by both sides in these and other battleground states, neither the president nor his challenger has been able to build a statistically significant lead. That ought to leave Democrats and Republicans wondering whether there is anything they can do to create any daylight between the two contenders.

The reasons for this stalemate are complex, but it boils down to a situation where both the president and Romney have strengths and weaknesses that seem to balance each other out. As Sean Trende noted last week at, the remarkable consistency of poll results that tend to show Obama with a slight lead among registered voters and a tie when it is narrowed down to likely voters is based on the fact that neither side seems able to deliver a knockout punch. The president is not popular and his main accomplishments are viewed negatively. But Romney is also not terribly well-liked. Even more important in Trende’s view is that while the economy is in bad shape, it is not that much worse than it was 2000 and 2004. Which means that no matter how much mud the Democrats sling at Romney or how hard the GOP hits the president on unpopular policies like ObamaCare, we are probably doomed to an election that will be as close as those two squeakers.

That sets up a fall campaign that will see both parties spending large sums of money to influence the relatively tiny portion of the electorate that is undecided. Unless something happens to the nation’s economy that will either considerably brighten or darken the outlook, it may not matter how much cash Republicans and Democrats spend. In an environment in which the margin for error is so small, that will magnify the importance of any mistakes made by the two candidates as well as marginal shifts in the economy that may be interpreted as either harbingers of a genuine recovery or more financial trouble.

That may put more pressure on Romney, whose public image is less well-defined and who labors under the challenge of toppling an incumbent who has more than the usual array of advantages that come with his post because of the historic nature of his presidency. But Obama’s inability to credibly talk about class warfare — which is increasingly seen as the centerpiece to his campaign — tends to offset the Camelot treatment he gets from the mainstream press. Both men are eminently beatable but not necessarily by each other. Which means we may be looking at the same poll numbers until they start counting the real votes in November.