On The Eve Of The First Debate

By Jason Kettinger | Posted at 3:45 PM

Firstly, don't believe the polls. President Obama is not leading, or building a lead, or any such thing. He's in a fight for his political life, and he knows it. It has never been obvious that an incumbent president is going down, and it won't be all that obvious if it happens this time. I doubt Clinton's people knew they were going to win in 1992 until they did. Oh, sure, they believed they had a shot. And you have to have a ludicrous amount of confidence to be a candidate. But let's get one thing straight: it will never be an easy thing to beat a sitting president, and I've never, ever, seen an incumbent behind in most polls in the summer, even when they lose.

The methodology of polls has been much-discussed, and this is good. My view is there's something off. It is simply unreasonable to believe, even if Obama wins, that he leads by 8-10 points. We should not see polls of all adults past September 1; in addition, asking anyone but those most likely to cast a ballot is foolish in the first place. Half of us won't even bother.

I'm using 2004 as the most reliable guide for this election, because it was the last time we had an incumbent. To be frank about it, it appears that Obama is in a much weaker position than Bush was. Bush led in polls at this time by an average of 6.5%; Obama leads by 4. As Bush himself will tell you, the result was much closer. The president needs a lead to win; it looks to me like this one may not be big enough.

Despite the furor over recent alleged missteps by Romney, in general, he is a very strong candidate. He's not as boring as the professional chatterers say, nor is he half as awkward as losers of recent memory. And in the big moments (like debates) he comes up very big. Just ask Santorum and Gingrich. He has a good team around him, who often makes his case better than he does. That's a feature, not a bug. There is no reason to suppose he's doomed. The structural advantages belong to him. If he has a good month, he'll win.

I need to speak forthrightly about race and the election for a moment. I do believe that a significant portion of the electorate who says right now they intend to vote for the president will not do so. I think this is a unique situation, and a good portion of the electorate doesn't want to say they don't support our first black president for re-election.

Events would strongly suggest that he is not in fact cruising to re-election, but heading for a loss. Which seems more plausible? That the white portion of the electorate, terrified of the charge of racism, would lie to largely pro-Obama media and pollsters, given persistently high unemployment, foreign policy failures, sketchy mandates, and sluggish growth, or that the richest, most successful, most optimistic people in human history will vote against a rich, geeky, white Mormon, because he's got too much money (or something)? We'll see. But I know what I think will happen.

Jason Kettinger is a contributing editor to Open for Business.