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The State of the Race

A flurry of surveys with wildly contradictory results at the national and state levels has caused the New York Times‘s polling guru, Nate Silver, to throw up his hands. This afternoon, he tweeted: “The. Polls. Have. Stopped. Making. Any. Sense.” This may understate the case. For ten years now, pollsters have acknowledged their jobs are becoming more and more difficult, what with the multiplicity of phones people use, the time they spend on the Internet, and the fact that more and more people screen their calls. The poll madness today suggests that the difficulty may be blossoming into a full-bore crisis—even as the media hang on every number because we need something, anything, that seems like an empirical data point to evaluate the state of the race.

So trying to figure out where the presidential race might be at present is total guesswork, based on data that don’t correlate and are being gathered according to suspect means. So here’s mine: Obama is ahead and Romney is behind. But not by much, and within the margin of error.

Given the steadiness in the findings of the two daily tracking polls, Gallup and Rasmussen, both of which essentially echo each other with a 47-46 result over the past several days, their agreement would seem to be closer to the truth than longer-term polls showing a far wider margin in Obama’s favor. But the existence of those polls, and the lack of existence of a single poll showing a wider margin for Romney, is suggestive of something.

Without a change in the race’s trajectory, there’s little reason to think there will be any change in the dynamic. In other words, Obama would win. By a little, not a lot. And there is no margin of error on election day (unless the chads fail to fall).

Which means Romney needs to act to change the trajectory. One sign of what that might mean comes from the first major poll on foreign policy taken after last week’s horrific events in Cairo and Libya. You’ll recall Romney blasted the administration for a statement out of Cairo that, he said, expressed sympathy for the rioters. This was viewed as a great evil by a great many people, and criticized by people on Romney’s own side as well. Romney’s team appeared battered and bruised by the attacks. And yet in the NBC News poll released yesterday, the president saw a significant drop of 5 percentage points on a question about his handling of foreign policy. This is not to say Romney caused Obama’s drop, but it might mean he was closer to the national wavelength than the incestuous Washington-NY media thought.

Obviously the question over the next few days is whether Romney will suffer from the “47 percent” remarks on the hidden videotape. I explain here why I think what Romney said was wrong and wrong-headed. That kind of trajectory change would, obviously, make Romney’s challenge more significant.

The strange thing about the Romney camp is that, with the exception of that statement, it appears to have no sense of urgency about its condition. Romney, it’s said, never gets mad, and has never had a fight with his wife. That’s wonderful for him, but one virtue of getting angry and heated and squabbly and in a fight is that it will at least register a pulse. You can’t win a race if you don’t get your heart rate up.