Obama and Romney Campaigns Maneuver, Misdirect as Election Draws Close

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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally at the Reno Event Center in Reno, Nev., on Oct. 24, 2012.

With less than a week until Election Day, the campaign spin is so dizzying you may feel like throwing up. 

Mitt Romney‘s advisers say they have the incumbent running scared, with shrinking leads in battleground states, diminished early voting margins from 2008 and states once tucked safely in the President’s column sliding back into play. Barack Obama‘s team calls this a fantasy designed to create the illusion of momentum. Obama, they note, still holds narrow but stable lead in the handful of battleground states that count.

So how do you slice through the spin to get an accurate picture of where the race stands? Watch what the candidates do, not what their campaign says.

Obama stepped off the campaign trail for three of the final 10 days of the race, concentrating instead on the calamitous storm that socked the northeast. This decision was likely in part a political calculation: Obama has availed himself of a chance to wield the power of the presidency in a moment of crisis. And it appears to be paying off. Obama drew plaudits Tuesday from Republican Governor Chris Christie for his handling of Hurricane Sandy. On Wednesday he swoops into Atlantic City for a presidential photo op. The chorus of critics ready to seize on any potential missteps has stayed silent, with the exception of the guy who botched the federal response to Katrina arguing that Obama…acted too decisively.

Romney, on the other hand, has been throwing the kitchen sink at the President. First he launched a misleading ad that suggested Jeep would relocate Ohio-based workers to China. (The radio version is even more dishonest.) Now he is up with a new spot that resurrects the canard that Obama “gutted the work requirement for welfare.”

The welfare argument has been widely debunked, including here. Auto executives roundly denounced the deceptive auto ads. Why is Romney resorting to falsehoods? He’s hoping they work. He needs the help.

The GOP is crowing over their success “expanding the map” — that is, forcing Obama to defend blue-leaning states like Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. To an extent, this is true. Obama has gone up with ads in those states to neutralize a Romney offensive. But it’s not clear that it means much. With both candidates well-funded, money is far less important at this late phase than a candidate’s time. The incumbent’s decision to dispatch Bill Clinton to Minnesota or broadcasts ads in Michigan does indeed suggest he’s playing defense. But it’s not a terrible thing to be on defense when you’re ahead in the fourth quarter. Political science research suggests ads have the ability to significantly move the needle only when they run un-countered. So it is “prudent,” as David Axelrod said, for Obama to rebut Romney in states that may be tightening. Obama remains the favorite there.

Meanwhile, Romney has yet to close a slim but stubborn deficit in most public polls of Ohio, a state that is important to both candidates. And he has been forced to keep fighting for Virginia and Florida, two states that are crucial for him. The Republican nominee is campaigning across Florida on Wednesday. He makes three stops in Virginia on Thursday, then heads back to Ohio on Friday. If Romney can’t put Florida and Virginia away — and the time invested this week says he hasn’t — Ohio may not even matter. Minnesota and Pennsylvania are head-fakes. Until Romney takes a break from the Florida-Ohio-Virginia triumvirate to head to Minneapolis or Philly, it’s hard to take too seriously the notion that those states are really within his grasp.

Campaigns try to create the illusion of momentum because they believe that late-breaking voters want to side with the winner. Are the polls tightening in some states that Obama wanted to bank on? It seems so. Is Obama playing defense? Sure. Four years ago he won virtually every state that’s being contested this cycle. In 2008 he racked up 365 electoral votes. Republicans are playing entirely on Obama’s side of the field, and are going to gain back some ground. But they have a lot of territory to reclaim, and not much time left.