Romney Feels the Bain, but It’s Still a Close Race

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President Barack Obama campaigns for re-election in the heavy rain on July 14, 2012, in Glen Allen, Va.

Democrats have thoroughly enjoyed the past few days of the presidential campaign, and with good reason. Mitt Romney’s camp has been on the defensive, responding to President Obama’s attacks with confusing and even goofy answers, and drawing criticism from prominent Republicans. A week that followed another terrible jobs report could have revolved around Obama’s economic record. Instead Americans have heard a long argument related to Romney’s wealth and the dark side of the business in which he made his fortune.

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So right now it feels like Obama is winning this fight. But as both Democrat William Galston and the Romney campaign itself note, the numbers show a neck-and-neck race. And there are reasons to think that Obama needs to finish the summer in something better than a tied race.

One is that the economy doesn’t seem poised to turn the corner. Recent indicators suggest that we’re in for more gross national blahs before job growth takes off again. And even if growth does pick up, Obama wants two or three consecutive strong-growth jobs reports to demonstrate that a real rebound is under way. There are only four more reports to come between now and Election Day, however. It’s almost too late for Obama to argue that we’re getting out of the rut.

The other reason Obama wants to gain a lead now is his short-term financial advantage. Romney’s ability to answer Obama’s advertising assault is limited by the fact that much of his huge fundraising haul consists of money that under federal law can only be spent in the general election. Many of Romney’s donors have maxed out on contributions that can be spent during the primaries. And while the primaries may feel long over, under election law they’re not concluded until Romney becomes his party’s nominee at the end of August. Once that happens, we could see something like the counterattack at Stalingrad. (It’s true that Republican super PACs can mitigate this imbalance on Romney’s behalf, although they’re not yet firing at full power either.) ABC News has a thorough breakdown of the particulars.

Romney’s advisers are heartened by Obama’s inability to break above a 50% support level and stay there. A political rule of thumb holds that an incumbent polling under 50% before an election will likely lose. Surely most voters have already formed a pretty clear opinion of Obama, leaving him with less room to grow than Romney.

You can credibly argue the case the other way. The swing-state polling looks slightly better for Obama right now than the aggregate national numbers. Obama may be having trouble growing his support, but at least his negatives are out there. The public is still getting to know Romney, and it’s quite possible that Obama’s attacks will KO Mitt. The vagaries of turnout will also make a huge difference.

But Democrats celebrating Bainapalooza should remember Han Solo’s immortal words to Luke: “Great, kid. Don’t get cocky.