Why is this election so close?

Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, explains what the shifts in the polls tell us about Election 2012 and the two presidential candidates.

Why is this election so close?

GOING INTO the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney on October 3, it looked like Obama was on verge of walking away with the election. Conservatives were writing off Romney, and Obama was opening up significant, if not overwhelming, leads in national and "swing state" opinion polls.

But then Romney embarrassed Obama in the October 3 debate--or Obama embarrassed himself, depending on your point of view--and the race was "etch-a-sketched" back to where it stood before the Democratic convention at the start of September.

As this article was being written, the presidential election is a toss-up--among the national opinion surveys tracked at Pollster.com, Romney is as likely to be in the lead as Obama, but neither candidate is ever ahead by more than a couple percentage points.

What's taken place isn't a mass shift of millions of voters from Obama to Romney. Instead, a narrow band of people in the middle--no more than 5 or 10 percent of likely voters--who were leaning toward Obama are now going the other way. But also importantly, Republican supporters are now enthusiastic about their candidate while Democrats have become more tentative.

So no, the Romney-Ryan ticket hasn't surged into a clear lead. But it does have to be said it's no longer absurd to consider the possibility that the Republicans will win back the White House.

What happened? How could the openly plutocratic GOP ticket--with two candidates who want to dismantle the federal government's most popular programs, Social Security and Medicare--be in a position to win the presidency?

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AS THIS website has noted before, the macroeconomic backdrop to the election--a barely growing economy, with millions still feeling the devastation of the 2008 financial crisis--presented the two presidential campaigns with different strategic aims.

The Romney campaign had to make the election a referendum on Obama's four years in office, presiding over terrible economic conditions. If "swing" voters in the middle of the political spectrum go to the polls deciding whether to rehire or to fire Obama based on how his term in office affected them, they will most likely give Obama a pink slip.

The liberal blogger Matt Stoller of the Roosevelt Institute explained what this means in concrete terms:

It should be obvious that if you foreclose on your voters, cut their pay and legalize theft of their wealth by Wall Street oligarchs, they won't be your voters anymore. Somehow, Democratic activists continue to operate as if policy doesn't matter to voters, or that policy evaluation is a Chinese [restaurant] menu of different stuff, some of which you like and some of which you don't, as in "Oh, I'll take a pro-choice moderate, with a bailout and gay rights. And a Pepsi."

But that's not how it works--voters' lives get better or they don't. And under Obama, stuff has gotten worse. Obama's economic policies have made economic inequality sharper than it was under Bush, due to his bailout of banks and concurrent elimination of the main source of wealth of most Americans, home equity.

With these policy choices, Obama destroyed the Democratic Party and liberalism--under Obama's first two years, the fastest growing demographic party label was "former Democrat." Liberalism demands that people pay for a government, but why should anyone want to pay taxes for the terrible governance Obama has implemented?

On the other side, the main priority for the Obama campaign was to turn the election into a "choice" between two alternatives, one of them extremely scary and obviously out-of-touch with most voters. The Democrats needed to convince enough voters that "firing" Obama would mean "hiring" Romney--and that would be far worse than keeping Obama in office.

Going into the first debate, the Obama campaign seemed to have the upper hand in defining the November election as a "choice," not a "referendum." Romney--in no small measure because of his campaign and the Republican convention both tilted toward the hard right wing of the party--was generally viewed as a "1 percenter," whose agenda was to continue redistributing wealth to the rich, while tearing up what's left of the social safety net.

But during the October 3 debate--watched by an estimated 70 million people, which made it the first event of the campaign that really large numbers of people paid attention to--Romney managed to shift the election's macro argument back onto grounds that are more favorable to him.

A confident and crisp Romney fired off statistic after statistic--about joblessness, poverty rates, the growing fiscal deficit and other indicators of the terrible economy--at a squirming and uncomfortable Obama. In a brazen example of political shape-shifting, Romney disavowed his unpopular positions on cutting taxes for the wealthy, while insisting that he had a "plan" to put Americans back to work.

Obama's failure to answer these charges--to call out Romney on his obvious lies or even to offer much of a contrast to the Republican on any but a few positions--had a deeply demoralizing effect on Obama's supporters. That's critical, because victory on November 6 for either candidate will depend on whether they mobilize their respective "bases" more than winning over the dwindling number of "undecided" voters.

Joshua Micah Marshall, the liberal editor of Talking Points Memo, explained the debate of the debate in these terms:

Yes, clearly, Romney's performance (coupled with Obama's) pumped up and solidified Romney's support. It led weak Obama supporters to think again and consider Romney. But in a base election, in a turnout election, there's simply no underestimating the level of demoralization Obama put into his supporters with that debate performance. I can see it palpably in reader e-mails from people who support the president. But it goes well beyond disappointment. It's something more akin to soldiers going into battle and then looking over their shoulder to see the commander has turned around and is going the other way.

Meanwhile, right-wingers who were ready to write off Romney before the debate have become more engaged. Because they now see the possibility of a Romney victory, they're less willing to criticize his shape-shifting, which means the Republicans will look less like mean-spirited reactionaries pandering to the Christian Right. They know that they'll get everything they want from Romney if he wins the election.

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WHEN ASSESSING the impact of the presidential debates, it's important not to dwell too much on the theatrics, but on what they indicate about the strategies the campaigns are trying to pursue.

Obama can win re-election only if he makes Romney appear as an unacceptable alternative. So Obama's failure to draw sharper contrasts with Romney in the first matchup was a major error. With around half of the likely electorate watching, Obama never reminded them of Romney's contemptuous remarks--caught on a secret video--about the "47 percent" of the population that supposedly doesn't pay taxes and is therefore lazy and shiftless. As a result, anyone watching Romney perform could see him instead as a pragmatic problem-solver.

Even worse, Obama appeared to agree with Romney on particular issues where Democratic supporters badly want him to draw sharp lines. In one exchange on Social Security, for example, Obama failed to point out that Romney-Ryan supports a politically toxic plan to privatize it. As the liberal writer Robert Kuttner wrote in American Prospect:

In the first debate, I was waiting for President Obama to go to town on this. Instead, Obama had this to say:

LEHRER: "Mr. President. Do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?"

OBAMA: "You know, I suspect that, on Social Security, we've got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It's going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Speaker -- Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill."

He's got a similar position to Mitt Romney's? On Social Security? Does this man just want to hand the presidency to Romney on a platter?...

So because of the influence of the deficit hawks and Social Security fearmongers, Obama is giving away what should be one of the clearest differences with Romney and one of the most winning issues for his campaign. Maybe if Democrats scream loudly enough, they can still get him off this suicidal kick.

Liberal Democrats have screamed, and the Obama campaign claims to have heard the message--but time will tell. In the October 11 vice presidential debate, Joe Biden did manage to take far-right Rep. Paul Ryan to task on a number of unpopular positions that Romney-Ryan hold, but are trying to hide.

Nevertheless, the Democrats are still stuck with some inconvenient truths.

First, Obama can't run on his economic record. Second, their overall vision for the future--like that of the Republicans-- is based around reducing the federal deficit and "tackling entitlement spending," not on attacking income inequality or providing economic security for millions of Americans.

The Democrats' campaign to raise taxes on "millionaires and billionaires" isn't actually aimed at overcoming the government-abetted destruction of working-class living standards, but at showing that they're serious about taming the federal budget deficit.

Tim Price, a blogger at Next New Deal, counted 37 mentions of the federal deficit during the first Obama-Romney debate, against zero references to climate change, immigration or labor rights, and only four mentions of women--with two of them being about the candidates' wives. As Price wrote, "Instead of articulating a bold progressive vision for the economy and a strong defense of the social safety net, [Obama] often sounded like a moderate running in a Republican primary."

Obama's acceptance of that austerity framework is what provided Romney the opening to pose as someone whose tax cuts amount to a plan to create "12 million jobs" in his administration. It's complete fiction, but it certainly sounds better than "more of the same" under Obama.

In his sum-up during the vice-presidential debate, Ryan asked, referring to Romney, "At a time when we have a jobs crisis in America, wouldn't it be nice to have a job creator in the White House?" Again, complete nonsense. But it sounds like an answer to an ongoing crisis that the Obama administration shows little urgency in addressing.

So are we destined to see a Romney-Ryan victory on November 6? Just as it was too soon to call the election for Obama in late September, it's too soon to hand it to Romney now. Biden proved in the vice presidential debate that the Democratic ticket could show signs of life. And Romney-Ryan are still carrying the baggage of unpopular policies--from privatizing Social Security to recriminalizing abortion--that they would prefer not to highlight as they try to skate into the White House.

But there's no denying that Romney has a definite shot at winning that he didn't seem to have at the beginning of this month.

The election has returned to its "fundamentals," where voters are weighing a choice between an indefensible status quo and an uncertain future. Whatever the outcome in November, we will need to be ready to face this fact: The austerity agenda will grind on--with a few palliatives (Obama) or on steroids (Romney)--until working people put a stop to it.