Once you take into account the usual post-convention bounces in poll numbers, it is fair to say that the gap between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney remains within the margin of error—though Obama has built some momentum. Last Friday’s weak job numbers, however, guarantee that the economy will remain the priority issue for most voters, and the race is expected to stay a close one until the first debate between the two candidates.
This being said, this election will be about more than economic indicators at the end of the day. Character and vision will take on an importance of their own when we enter debate season. So far, this appears to be playing in the Democrats’ favour. According to polls, they managed to change the dynamic of the race with a more successful convention than the Republicans (Clint Eastwood’s performance notwithstanding). Republican nominee Mitt Romney still hasn’t succeeded in conveying a clear idea of the kind of president he will be. His feeble attempt to exploit events in Libya on September 11 only further puzzled Americans voters trying to understand who he really is.
Obama may not have regained his luster of 2008, where his historic quest attracted a horde of new voters, but he did succeed in showing that he has a record and accomplishments to defend. Meanwhile, the Republican account of a Carter-like leader with a socialist agenda seems to be a narrative that plays only to the party’s base. A more compelling Romney would have given the GOP a decided advantage coming out of the convention season. But that did not happen.
The focus is now shifting to the first presidential debate, which will be held on Oct. 3. Until then, both tickets will concentrate on the key swing states, with Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina, Wisconsin and New Hampshire quite possibly shaping the outcome of the election.
Unlike Sarah Palin in 2008, it appears that vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan has not generated enthusiasm beyond the Republican base. While Palin had her shortcomings, it is on the record that her performance at the RNC in 2008 gave a needed post-convention bounce to the Republican ticket. The failure of Lehman Brothers in mid September 2008 did much to curb that enthusiasm, but Ryan, a far superior candidate than Palin, seems listless at this stage of the campaign.
Vice President Joe Biden may sometimes appear overexuberant, but he does convey the aura of a reassuring, fatherly figure. And both Obama and Biden have been effective on national security—polls show a 51 per cent approval level on that issue, which is one where Republicans generally score better. It is becoming more evident in recent weeks that the Obama-Biden ticket is capitalizing on the advantages of incumbency.
So the first debate will become a make or break moment for the Romney-Ryan ticket. Romney has steadfastly held to his position on his tax returns, continued to flip flop on issues, shown a poor grasp of foreign policy issues, and failed to give voters a clear Romney at this late stage of the campaign. The first debate will give him another opportunity to engage with the American public without a filter. It might be his last .