Saturday, September 22, 2012

Early voting 2012:
‘Anything can happen’ may be happening right now

ANYTHING CAN happen. Admit it — you’ve heard those words a lot in the last three weeks or so as they relate to the 2012 presidential campaign. More often than not, they’ve been uttered by any of the professionally cautious political analysts at one of the networks with a vested financial interest in this White House horse race being as close as possible for as long as possible.

The conservative wing of the CAPS LOCK commentariat have been screaming it, in their fashion. It’s more and more the mantra of the movers and shakers of the Mitt Romney campaign, an org so deeply immersed in damage control that damage control is the order of the day.

And it’s increasingly become the operating philosophy, if not the catchphrase, of a conservative media — from Laura Ingraham to Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer to George Will — whose frustration with the candidate gets more obvious all the time.

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Peggy Noonan got at this thinking in another way in a Thursday column in The Wall Street Journal. Expressing the hope that Team Romney may yet carve out a winning strategy at the tenth hour-plus, she borrowed a sentence from the Robert Bolt screenplay of ”Lawrence of Arabia”: “Nothing is written.”

It’s a fine, culturally classy way to inspire hope for the beleaguered Republican nominee. But the wave of recent internal strife and unforced errors for the Romney campaign confronts a parallel wave of new polling suggesting that, in the swing states and generally, Team Romney is in deep trouble.

Now, add to that a toweringly inconvenient fact: early and absentee voting has already started in dozens of states, as of yesterday. The result for Team Romney is perhaps half the nation deciding on his desperate campaign sooner rather than later … and the certainty that, all apologies to Robert Bolt, much is being written as we speak.

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ON FRIDAY NBC ‘s Kyle Inskeep reported: “Idaho, South Dakota, and the crucial swing state of Virginia are the first states to begin early, in-person voting today.

“Also today, absentee voting begins in Minnesota, West Virginia, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Georgia, Arkansas, Idaho, and Maryland, bringing the total number of states already accepting ballots to 13. Twelve others -- South Carolina, New Jersey, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Delaware, Louisiana, and Missouri — will begin absentee or early voting Saturday.”

“That means, by tomorrow, half the country will be casting votes. By the end of the month, voters in 30 states will be voting already.”

Four states — Kentucky, Indiana, and swing states Wisconsin and North Carolina had already started their early voting between Sept. 6 and Thursday.

Dr. Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University who studies voter behavior, told NBC that more than 46 million people — one in every three voters expected to turn up at the polls between now and Nov. 6 — is expected to vote early in 2012 either in person, by mail or absentee. “Once you turn up the faucet on early voting, you keep turning it up until it’s all the way open,” he said.

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This is hardly a good time, conservatively speaking, for Team Romney to find that faucet on. As his campaign has lurched from one reinvention to another, ricocheted from one crisis to the next, Romney, his supporters and the campaign itself have privately if not publicly held out the hope that the three October debates between Romney and President Obama would be definitive, and a final opportunity for Romney to close the sale — to shine as he has in previous debates. Some analysts have gone so far as to say the debates would be the pivot point for the future trajectories of both campaigns.

Noonan at WSJ: “It is true that a good debate, especially a good first one, can invigorate a candidate and lead to increased confidence, which can prompt good decisions and sensible statements. There is more than a month between the first debate and the voting: That's enough time for a healthy spiral to begin.”

That lofty possibility is monkey-wrenched by the calendar. Including Friday, there’ll be 13 days between the start of early voting and the first presidential debate, on Oct. 3, at Denver University. And that’s not counting the four states that started before Friday.

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The early voting now underway dovetails with the stunning unraveling of the Romney campaign in recent weeks; whatever case Romney may think he can make in any of the debates is a moot point to the millions who would have cast their ballots by then.

Maybe that’s why Gallup reported on Wednesday that “Three in four swing-state voters … believe the upcoming presidential debates will do little to influence their vote, while 25% say the debates could influence their vote 'a great deal' or 'a fair amount.' ”

Makes perfect sense that the debates won’t matter if you’ve already cast your vote.

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It’s of course an unproven assumption that all, or even most of the early voting is for Obama. Minds are just as likely to be made up early in Romney’s favor. But there’s no escaping the fact that the debates are thought to be Romney’s last hope, not the president’s.

Between the two candidates, Romney is the one who most needs to make the economic and political cases for the idea of a Romney presidency, and to do so with the detail and specificity his campaign has studiously avoided up to now.

Between the two of them, Romney is the one who has to show he has the tolerance and foresight to govern a nation — and to inspire a world — despite a long and sad trail of evidence to the contrary.

The challenge for Romney isn’t insurmountable, it’s just that it’s barely conceivable, so much so that his fortunes in the debates are being couched in the language of a campaign at the brink. Last chance. Last shot. Last straw.

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A HIGH-FUNCTIONING campaign is a balance of substance and style, policy and personality. Mitt Romney has never advertised himself as being capable of such political equipoise. Almost from the start, Romney was presented as a man of bottom-line substance, the kind of financial acumen the country needed to get back on track.

For months, Team Romney resisted appeals for more specifics about its economic plan, the candidate offering “a series of principles” rather than an actual plan, and keeping the details so generally under wraps that it can’t be fully scored.

So there’s still precious little for voters to decide about Romney’s economic policy; he’s seen to that. And what we’ve come to know about his personality (from his sojourn at the Olympics, from his rash quick-draw statement on Libya, from his elitist comments at a dinner in Boca Raton) isn’t very becoming. For many American voters, Romney’s world view — that of a gilt-encrusted hammer for whom everyone and everything around him is a nail — is fundamentally at odds with theirs. That perspective might be great for a CEO. It’s lousy for a president, or any one who wants to be president.

The October debates about two weeks from now may be Romney’s last chance to show the nation otherwise, and make it stick. By then, though, millions of voters will have already decided. Starting two weeks ago.

The circle of Romney champions pounds home the message that “anything can happen.” They better be careful what they wish for. The “anything” that can happen may be happening right now.

Image credits: Absentee and early voting map: National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL). Obama: Pete Souza/The White House. Romney: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images. FiveThirtyEight forecast graph: © 2012 The New York Times Company. 

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