Team Obama Preening, Romney Camp Eye-Rolling, Frayed Nerves For Both

Major Garrett

If preening made a sound you could hear it from President Obama's reelection headquarters all across the land.

And if eye-rolling could be heard it would reverberate from Mitt Romney's Boston headquarters and deafen legions of unsuspecting citizens.

Obama's team preens because it is certain it will win. Top advisers seriously entertain a question about how early Tuesday night Obama's victory will be declared, demurring only that precision eludes but, in the words of campaign manager Jim Messina, Chicago hopes it will be "as early as possible."

By its own determination, Obama's team believes it will have banked so much early vote in key states as to make Romney's Election Day vote deficit virtually impossible to make up. Messina contends Romney will need to win by the following percentages on Election Day to overcome Obama's projected early vote lead: 65 percent in North Carolina; 59 percent in Iowa and Colorado; 58 percent in Nevada; 55 percent in Florida and Ohio and 52 percent in Wisconsin and Virginia.

Despite these fulsome statistics, Messina wouldn't predict victories yet in any of these states. But he said Obama's efforts to register 1.8 million new voters (28 percent of whom have voted early - 345,000 in the top six battleground states) and 125 million calls or face-to-to-face interactions with voters will turn the tide for Obama. "Some campaigns believe in quantity over quality when it comes to voter contact," Messina said. "We do not. This is a people-centered, data-driven effort."

Chicago airily dismisses comparisons with 2008 turnout, which will undoubtedly be, at least by percentage tallies, smaller for the president and larger for his GOP foe.

“No one is running against 2008," said Mitch Snyder, head of field operations for Obama-Biden. "Romney is not running against John McCain in 2008. And President Obama is not running against Obama in 2008."

That is true but it also obscures the last great imponderable of this election - partisan turnout intensity - and the one that has frayed nerves in both camps. The 2008 election was unnaturally high for Democrats in terms of turnout and unnaturally low for Republicans.

This is at the root of widely disparate predictions from some of the nation's most respected political analysts. 

The New York Times' Nate Silver predicts an Obama victory in Ohio and many other hotly contested states and a somewhat comfortable, though narrow by percentage points, reelection. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent sees a similar firewall. The New Republic's Nate Cohn sees deeply rooted Obama advantages in Ohio and an important edge in Colorado.

The Washington Examiner's Michael Barone predicts a Romney election with 315 electoral votes, which would amount to a modern-era route for a Republican challenger (Richard Nixon won 301 in 1968, Ronald Reagan 489 in 1980 and Bush the younger 271 in 2000 - the post-Depression average for GOP challengers is 208).  Barone's math assumes Romney wins in Ohio (fueled as was Bush in 2004 by rural evangelicals), Pennsylvania (where western state turnout trumps Philly and its suburbs), and Wisconsin (where Gov. Scott Walker's turn-out effort swamps Obama's), and Iowa (where the Des Moines Register endorsement of Romney ventilates statewide "buyer's remorse).

Amid all of the data comes the latest Reuters national poll that shows the race tied and Obama at 47 percent. Polls are tightening in New Hampshire, where Romney has pulled into a 47 percent-47 percent tie with Obama. And some conservatives see a mathematical path for Romney in Pennsylvania.

Historically, GOP voter turnout in the battleground states has exceeded Democratic performance (meaning the state-by-state turnout was higher than ticket's national average). If GOP and Democratic turnout resembles that of 2004, Romney could win. If it resembles 2000, Obama could eke out victory, largely because demographic shifts since then favor Democrats. But conservatives point to Gallup data that convinces them partisan affiliation and enthusiasm represent the great X factor of this race and, in the end, will give Romney the White House and Democrats fits.

That partisan turnout won't bear any resemblance to 2008 is clear. Obama simply won't do as well as he did and Romney won't do a poorly as McCain. The question is how far does Obama fall from his high-water mark and how much does the Romney tide rise above McCain's? Romney advisers believe with biting certainty that higher GOP turnout, more enthusiasm, and a late spurt of support among independents will catapult Romney to victory.

"If the Obama campaign spent half the time trying to get people back to work as they do spinning reporters on why they're going to win this election, the unemployment rate might not have gone up," said Romney political director Rich Beeson. "That said, it doesn't matter how many field offices you have, staff you hire, or ground game plans you have. You need a candidate who can tell the American people why things will be better, not worse, after four years of their leadership."

Romney's advisers roll their eyes because they have reached the breaking point over Obama certitude about its vaunted get-out-the-vote effort. It is possible Team Romney now knows how formidable it is and fears defeat. It is equally possible Romney advisers can't wait to beat it and turn the assumption that machinery-beats-emotion on its head.  

Make no mistake, the Obama numbers on field operations, voter contacts, and even some of its early vote projections impress. In the battleground states, Obama's campaign has more than 5,100 what it calls get-out-the-vote staging locations.

These aren't brick and mortar field offices, but portable web-based platforms in homes and businesses that trained Obama volunteers use to mobilize other volunteers in the final push for registration and votes. According to Chicago, its battleground volunteers have signed up for nearly 700,000 four-hour shifts in the campaign's final days. 

And yet, Obama and his team are campaigning at a frenetic pace, deploying Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Dr. Jill Biden and former President Clinton all over the swing state battle space. Messina says this is about "not taking anything for granted," but the destinations bespeak a certain alarm at the closeness of contests in so many places and undercut the confidence conveyed through early vote metrics.

And even those metrics can be read different ways. What's the benchmark for success? If it's not 2008, what is it? Neither campaign can say with certainty. What they know is the intensity of the out-reach, the numbers on the tote board, and the maddening strain that comes with interpreting that data against the unknown of Election Day partisan turnout.

In Colorado, for example, Democrats beat Republicans in the 2008 early vote 37.7 percent to 35.9 percent. This year, Republicans lead Democrats 34.08 percent to 33.69 percent through Friday. In Florida, Democrats have registered an additional 250,000 voters since 2008 and lead the early vote, but by smaller margins than 2008. Democrats won the early vote then 45.6 percent to 37.3 percent. Data through Friday show Democrats leading 42.2 percent to 39.14 percent. In Iowa, Obama's team points to an early vote lead almost identical to 2008 of roughly 66,000 votes over GOP efforts. Republicans point to a surge in early vote (154,250 votes cast in 2008 versus 212,116 cast through Friday) that sets them up for victory on Election Day.

See all state-by-state early vote data here

See all national total vote data here.

In many of these states, both campaigns insist they are turning out so-called low-propensity voters, ones who commonly skip elections and represent juicy targets because reliable voters can be saved for Tuesday. Team Obama contends that in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina and Nevada 1.4 million non-midterm voters have cast ballots, versus 840,000 Republican non-midterm voters. If you skip midterm elections, you are a lower propensity voter. 

Republicans say just the opposite, but even if Obama's data is more accurate, Romney advisers see an advantage in independent early vote trends. According to GOP data, 3.2 million independents in the key battleground states have voted or have early ballots ready to be submitted. National and state polls have shown Romney winning among independents. The question is did these independents vote when that Romney surge was building or before?

In essence, the preening and eye-rolling, the chest-thumping and sarcasm across the tense terrain of this presidential election reflects the difficulty of understanding the dimensions of the 2012 political universe.   

It can be said Obama remade the known political universe in 2008 when he boosted turnout in Iowa and most other caucus states and held on to capture the Democratic nomination over Hillary Rodham Clinton. He similarly expanded the universe by boosting his 2008 vote total by nearly 10 million over John Kerry in 2004 (McCain managed to shrink GOP turnout to 59.9 million from Bush the younger's 2004 total of 62 million).

But even since Obama's 2008 victory, the universe he created has shrunk. It did so in 2009 in the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia where Obama campaigned but Republicans Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell won. It shrank conspicuously in 2010 when Republicans reversed many of the Democratic congressional gains achieved in 2006 and 2008.

What, then, will be the size of the universe on Tuesday? Can Obama prevail in a less hospitable partisan climate? Can he reverse the GOP backlash of 2010 or even the recall muscle the GOP deployed to protect Walker in Wisconsin earlier this year?

Obama's team believes it knows the political terrain better than Romney, that its voter contacts, outreach, registration, and mobilization can withstand any partisan tide. This is the core of its preening confidence and certainty. Romney has some data but also - and more importantly - an intuitive sense that American attitudes and temperament are primed for change.

In this, Obama bets on hard-bitten pragmatism and Romney the emotive punch of possibility. Obama the spread-sheet, Romney the romantic. Irony, thy name is campaign 2012.