The political world is overheated and overtweeted. Every little blip and slip is treated as a decisive turning point in an election still almost five months away. The same pundits who wrote off Mitt Romney for mentioning his wife’s two Cadillacs are now dismissing Barack Obama for saying the private sector is “doing fine.” They were wrong then and are wrong now. The election will be very close, and while it’s too early to predict the outcome, it is possible to identify some of the critical factors that could make a difference.
• Incumbency. The president has the biggest microphone in the country and the ability to control the agenda and make news, particularly in swing states like Ohio, where he’s practically moved in. Moreover, he acts as commander in chief, meeting with military brass and foreign leaders. Romney, like any challenger, can only ask voters to imagine him in that role.
• Demographics. The electorate was 74 percent white in 2008, and that figure will drop by 2 points this year. Obama won 95 percent of the black vote and 67 percent of the Hispanic vote four years ago, and those margins should hold. Democrats are already running Spanish-language ads in Nevada, Florida and Colorado. Romney could possibly reduce his vulnerability by picking Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, as his running mate, but as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said recently, Romney is in a “box” with Latino voters because of his harsh stance on immigration.
• Electoral map. Obama has more routes to victory than Romney. The website Real Clear Politics has him leading in states with 221 electoral votes, only 49 short of what he needs. Romney is at 170 with 11 toss-up states.
• Organization. Team Obama had time to build its organization while the Romney camp was distracted by primary fights. Moreover, Obama’s people understand the new media environment better than anyone. They know how to engage volunteers to donate and raise money, send videos, text friends, canvass neighbors. The real Obama revolution of 2008 occurred inside people’s heads, as passive supporters became active organizers, acquiring an ownership stake in his success. That strategy still works.
• Story. Obama has a poignant story to tell, and while he’s no longer the Great Black Hope, he still connects with voters on a personal level. They like him even if they don’t like his policies, and likability, along with optimism, are the two most valuable commodities in American politics.
• Economy. Obama, like all presidents, owns the economy. No matter how much he blames his predecessor in office, or “headwinds” in Europe, or Republicans in Congress, voters will hold him accountable for 8.2 percent unemployment and a 40 percent drop in average family wealth since 2007. In this context, Romney’s argument that he understands business and job creation is potentially quite persuasive.
• GOP base. Romney struggled in many early primaries, losing badly among the most conservative voters, but that now seems like ancient history. True Believers have not fallen in love with Romney — many still worry about his moderate past and Mormon faith — but they truly despise Obama, and their determination to defeat him fuels their commitment to the Romney cause.
• Intensity. A sense of disappointment diminishes the enthusiasm of many Obama supporters. Some liberals think he has not fought hard enough for their issues — a public option in the health-care bill, legalization of undocumented immigrants — while some moderates feel he’s been too partisan and ideological. Intensity matters in politics, and Republicans seem to have more of it right now.
• Money. Obama enjoyed a huge financial advantage over John McCain, but Romney outraised Obama by $16 million last month, and super PACs are poised to pour hundreds of millions into the anti-Obama effort. The Supreme Court’s decision to allow such PACs could turn out to have a major impact.
• Ann Romney. Romney can never match Obama’s personal story of struggle and hardship; he’s too rich, privileged and unmarked by disappointment. But his wife’s serious health problems send a signal that he does understand the strains and stresses the rest of us deal with every day.
The election could ultimately turn on an unpredictable event — a devastating storm, a European meltdown, a spike in gas prices — that darkens the nation’s mood or showcases Obama’s leadership. But the basic facts will be far more important than the latest twists and tweets flashing across your TV or computer screen.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.