The conference calls this week by the Obama and Romney campaigns could not have been more different. The Obama campaign was irritable and scattered, arguing that they have built up enough strength to hold onto the lead the president enjoyed for most of the campaign. The Romney campaign was optimistic, arguing that their voters are more enthusiastic and that they are building on the lead the challenger claimed in October.
Judging by what the campaigns do, rather than what they say, it would seem the facts are on Romney's side. Both campaigns are now running ads in the "blue" states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota. Both are spending time in these states, especially Wisconsin. Romney still needs to win more swing states to unseat Obama, but the fact that he has "expanded the map" means Obama must play defense in more places.
National polls have shown Romney slightly ahead; state polls have shown Obama slightly ahead. The result on Tuesday may settle a long-running debate about polling in general: whether pollsters have overestimated the likely turnout of Democrats. The numbers in many polls suggest that Democrats will meet or exceed their level of turnout in the "wave" election of 2008. Polls that measure voter enthusiasm, and anecdotal evidence along the campaign trail, suggest Democrats' enthusiasm is flagging and that the energy is on the Republican side.
There may also be a difference between polls run by firms that measure public opinion for a living, and those run by media and universities whose survival does not depend on the accuracy of their polling results.
It is also unclear what the results of Hurricane Sandy will be. Polls show wide approval for President Obama's handling of the disaster--no doubt the result of fawning media coverage, which was absent when Obama had all but ignored Hurricane Isaac in September. Whether that positive image is enough to affect independent or undecided votes in swing states is unclear, though early polls show it has not yet had a significant effect.
Right now, Romney is winning independents in most polls--even ones with heavy advantages for Democrats. That may determine the outcome of the election more than any other factor except the turnout of base voters.
If anything, the fate of the U.S. Senate is even more muddled than the presidential election, with many races so close that it is very difficult to forecast a national result. Republicans need to win a net of three seats if Romney and Ryan win on the presidential ticket, and four seats if they do not, to take control.
Only one thing is almost certain: Obama will win a smaller percentage of the vote than in 2008. He has also campaigned as a smaller candidate. Hurricane Sandy may have mitigated some of the damage by encouraging him to project an image of bipartisan leadership. But if he does win--and presidents are rarely re-elected when their share of the vote drops--he will struggle to prove he has anything like the mandate he had last time. The prospect of emerging from this year with new, fresh leadership may attract last-minute voters to Romney.