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Obama and Romney: The Path to the Presidency

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

It’s certain to be the most expensive presidential race on record and it’s shaping up to be one of the closest as well. With less than three months until Election Day, the campaigns of President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, are each figuring out which path will lead them to 270 electoral votes and the keys to the White House.

For Team Obama, the strategy for these last remaining months of campaigning remains unchanged: convince undecided voters that the administration’s policies have helped the country make progress while simultaneously painting Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch Wall Street fat cat who will return the country to the economic policies of President George W. Bush. Unlike the Obama/McCain race four years ago, in which then-Senator Obama could run a largely positive campaign on a message of “hope and change,” this campaign has been overwhelmingly negative. As a senior Obama campaign advisor told Politico in August of last year, “Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney.”

Mitt Romney’s strategy to get to 270 essentially boils down to the very effective line that Ronald Reagan used against President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential campaign: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” As a senior Romney strategist told me in mid-June, “This is an election about the state of the U.S. economy. We’re focused on issues relating to job creation and deficit reduction. We feel we’re in a strong position to make this election a referendum on the economy and how President Obama has managed it.”

Although there are stark differences in the way each side views the state of the U.S. economy, there are two key things that both campaigns readily acknowledge: President Obama is unlikely to expand the electoral map the way he did in 2008; and this campaign, unlike the Obama/McCain race, is going to be close and very competitive.

The mood of the electorate

In 2008, barack Obama won the White House thanks to the perfect political storm: Voters had grown tired of eight years of Republican leadership under President George W. Bush; Obama sold himself as a new kind of political leader who could unite a divided electorate; and a coalition of young voters, upscale professionals, minorities, and independents embraced his message of “hope and change.” For many in this coalition, 2008 was more than an election — it was a movement.

Four years later, much has changed. The president’s job approval ratings have fallen from 63 percent when he was inaugurated to a little less than 47 percent today, according to an average of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com. More troubling for the president’s re-election prospects is a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll that shows that a majority of independents feels that President Obama’s policies have made it harder for Americans to gain employment. Fifty-two percent of independents said they agreed with the idea that “the president has not helped create more jobs in America.” That’s an argument that taps into the central message of the Romney campaign.

With job growth slowing to anemic levels and the unemployment rate stuck above eight percent (and even higher in the battleground states of Florida, Nevada, and North Carolina), it’s getting harder for President Obama to blame the weak recovery on the mistakes of his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush.

As for the president’s signature domestic achievement in his first term — the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — a majority of the general public views that law as a bust. Among registered voters, 57 percent of those surveyed by Reuters/Ipsos said that they believe the health care overhaul has damaged the economy — an argument that Mitt Romney has been making at campaign stops around the country.

Advisors to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign argue that the Supreme Court’s vindication of President Obama’s health care law in late June — while a short-term win for the president — may actually benefit Romney. The reason: Republicans and independents now know that the only path to throwing out “Obamacare” is to elect Romney. According to this argument, the same voters that were fired up in the 2010 midterms will be energized in the November presidential election. In fact, less than 24 hours after the Court’s ruling, the Romney campaign reported that it had raised $4.6 million from 47,000 online donations. The ruling also gave Romney another talking point to use out on the campaign trail: The individual mandate contained in President Obama’s health care law is, indeed, a tax.

The Affordable Care Act is likely to be a backburner issue. For most voters, the economy is the biggest concern.

Unsurprisingly, White House advisors have a different spin on the Supreme Court victory. As one told me on background, the ruling is not only a morale boost to the Democratic base, it boxes Romney in on the Massachusetts health care law he championed and destroys the narrative of the president as an ineffectual leader.

But the reality is that the Supreme Court decision, coming almost four months before Election Day, is likely to be a back-burner issue. Views about the Affordable Care Act are already settled. For most voters, the economy has been and likely will remain their biggest concern. This has clearly benefitted the campaign of Mitt Romney, who has drawn even with President Obama in most national public opinion polls by positioning himself as an economic Mr. Fix-it. And that message appears to be resonating with voters. A Fox News poll released in early June found Romney tops President Obama on economic issues by seven points — 46 to 39. A recent abc News poll found similar results among independent voters, who are largely skeptical of President Obama’s plans on the economy. The poll taken in mid-June found that only 38 percent of independents have a favorable impression of President Obama’s economic policies, while 54 percent have an unfavorable impression — a sixteen point margin. This gap has presented an opportunity for Mitt Romney to compete with President Obama not only in the traditional battleground states of Florida and Ohio, but also in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — which have voted for the Democratic nominee in the past six presidential elections.

Obama campaign manager Jim Messina has acknowledged both publicly and privately that the economy won’t be strong by Election Day. But the president’s political team is hoping that it will be improved enough in November to make voters feel like the economy is heading in the right direction. The model for Team Obama is President Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign in 1984. Like President Obama, Reagan also dealt with an economic recession and high unemployment early in his first term.

But there are some major differences between the economic playing fields for both presidents. In November of 1984 the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 7.2 percent. But leading up to Election Day, voters had the sense that the economy was improving, as the jobless rate steadily fell from 10.8 percent in December 1992 and eight percent in January 1984. Additionally, in June of 1984, President Reagan’s approval ratings — according to Gallup — stood at 54 percent. That’s much higher than the 45 percent that Gallup has for President Obama at this writing.

Perhaps seeing that the economy is not a winning issue, the White House has done its best to change the subject.

Perhaps recognizing that the economy is not the issue that is their strong suit heading into November, the White House has tried to change the subject. In a clever move that immediately put former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on the defensive and knocked him off-message, President Obama in early June issued an executive order that allows around 800,000 illegal immigrants — those under the age of 30 who came to the United States as children, if they meet certain conditions — to remain in the country without fear of deportation. The temporary order also allows them to work. The president in a Rose Garden address said the changes would make immigration policy “more fair, more efficient and more just.”

But coming less than five months before the presidential election, the action reeks of politics. Not only does the temporary order reverse President Obama’s previous position that he lacked the authority to effectively do a dream Act end-run around Congress, but the move was clearly aimed at consolidating Latino support in such battleground electoral states as Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, and New Mexico. Beyond the battleground states, the executive order should also help the president’s standing with the nearly 22 million Hispanics who are eligible to vote in 2012. It may also help increase Obama’s share of the Hispanic vote from the 67 percent that he received in 2008. Prior to the announcement, President Obama had been criticized by Hispanic-American leaders for an overall increase in deportations of illegal aliens in recent years.

But the benefits that President Obama may receive from his sudden reversal on his illegal immigration policy are likely to be short-lived. Governor Romney, in a mid-June speech to naleo, a group of Hispanic elected and appointed officials, pledged to build his own “long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president’s temporary measure” on illegal immigration. Further undercutting the president’s political advantage, unemployment among Hispanics is eleven percent — higher than the national average. So while a Bloomberg poll released in mid-June showed that 64 percent of likely voters surveyed after the announcement said they agreed with the policy, voters in November are predominantly going to decide their vote on the area that is clearly President Obama’s Achilles’ heel: the economy. Indicative of that: A May Washington Post-abc News poll, in which less than one percent of respondents named immigration as the single most important issue for them in the election. By contrast, the economy was the most important issue to 52 percent of those surveyed. Forget same-sex marriage, immigration, and health care. Once again, like the 1992 presidential election, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

The fight for the battleground states

While numerous polls indicate that the race for the White House appears very close nationally, a close examination is necessary of the electoral college, which is where a presidential race is actually decided. The 2012 electoral map is likely to be very different from the one that won President Obama the keys to the White House. Thanks to victories in Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, and traditionally Republican Virginia, President Obama turned the 2008 Electoral Map into a sea of blue. The Obama/Biden ticket handily defeated McCain/Palin 365—173. Not only was it an Electoral College landslide, it was the best performance by a Democrat in a presidential election in decades.

Unlike 2008, the 2012 election will likely be highly competitive. With unemployment nationally stuck above eight percent, consumer confidence continuing to decline, and the economic recovery slowed, President Obama’s re-election path is much more difficult than his route four years ago. Although much can change over the next few months, it’s already possible to begin filling in the electoral map based on recent polls for each state, discussions with campaign advisors and state party leaders, and historical trends — including how the state voted in 2008.

Advisors to both campaigns have described to me the multiple pathways they see to get to the magic number of 270. Not surprisingly, Team Obama and Team Romney see the map very differently when it comes to the so-called battleground states and also as it relates to a few states that most Democratic strategists would call reliably blue. What both sides do agree on is that President Obama is unlikely to win any state that Senator John McCain won in 2008. In addition, Obama is unlikely to win again the lone congressional district in Nebraska that he added to his electoral total four years ago. Finally, because of the 2010 census numbers, states carried by President Obama in 2008 will lose a net total of six electoral votes, thus adding six votes to the McCain 2008 column. Recent polls and discussions with state party leaders also indicate that President Obama is unlikely to keep Indiana and North Carolina in his column in November. All of this means that Mitt Romney begins his quest for the White House with 206 electoral votes.

For President Obama, his reelection battle plan starts with 201 electoral votes. But from there, getting to 270 (and beyond) appears easier than Mitt Romney’s path. Still, there are 10 states — representing 131 electoral votes — that both sides see in the toss-up category. Both campaigns will devote a vast amount of resources to these states. What follows is an analysis of each of these battleground states, with a forecast of the likely outcome in November.

Over the past decade, the demographics of Colorado have changed dramatically. 20.7 percent of the state is Hispanic/Latino.

Colorado’s nine electoral votes were firmly in Barack Obama’s column four years ago, as the senator from Illinois won the state by a comfortable nine-point margin. This election cycle, President Obama will not have it so easy. As of this writing, Obama leads the former Massachusetts governor by three points according to the RealClearPolitics.com average. Although surrounded by “red” (except for New Mexico to the south), both campaigns consider Colorado a swing state. Since 1992, Colorado has voted for Clinton, Dole, George W. Bush twice, and Barack Obama in 2008. But over the past decade the state’s demographics have changed dramatically. According to 2010 Census figures, the Hispanic or Latino population in Colorado now makes up 20.7 percent of the population. In addition, Colorado has gained almost half a million independent voters just since the 2008 elections. Because it is such a pivotal swing state, both Mitt Romney and President Obama have lavished much attention on Colorado — with campaign visits and plenty of campaign ads. Although unemployment climbed to 8.1 percent in May, Obama continues to maintain a sizeable lead among Hispanics, women, independents, and young voters. So despite the fact Romney is making the state much more competitive, Obama’s a favorite to win the state again in November.

For Mitt Romney, Florida is critical to his path to victory. Unlike Obama, who can actually afford to lose the Sunshine State and still get to 270, Romney’s path to 270 must include Florida. With its 29 electoral votes, Florida is seen by both campaigns as a pivotal battleground state. President Obama won the state in 2004 by just 2.5 percent over John McCain. But much has changed in four years: Florida has a Republican governor, a newly-elected Republican senator (who is on the short-list as Romney’s vice presidential pick), and Republicans retain control of the state House and Senate. But this is by no means a solid “red” state. President Obama has worked assiduously over the last four years to increase his hold on Florida. His recent executive order easing U.S. deportation policy was aimed in part at widening his sizeable lead over Romney among Florida’s Latino population. Still, most polls indicate this state will be a toss-up. According to a Quinnipiac University poll released in late June, the president’s approval ratings are slightly underwater: 47 percent give him a positive grade while 49 percent disapprove of the job he is doing. Voters are also split over whether President Obama deserves reelection: 46 percent say he does while 47 percent say he doesn’t. This has created an opportunity for Mitt Romney, who has traveled to the state often (and blanketed its airwaves with ads) since wrapping up the Republican nomination. Although this is a true toss-up state, Florida leans Republican. George W. Bush carried the Sunshine State twice. And President Obama, who won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, needs to maintain that same level of support in November to counter erosions in other parts of his base. Home foreclosures have hit Florida hard. With Florida’s May unemployment figure higher than the national average at 8.6 percent, Mitt Romney will likely win the Sunshine State — demonstrating that his Mr. Fix-it campaign strategy is an effective one.

Florida is critical to Mitt Romney’s path to victory. For Obama to win the Sunshine StateState, he’ll need intain the Hispanic vote.

Iowa, with its six electoral votes (down from  seven in 2008), is a true swing state; Barack Obama, who had his candidacy ignited by Iowa caucus-goers, easily defeated John McCain, 54–44. In 2004, President George W. Bush eked out a victory over John Kerry by a little over 10,000 votes (0.7 percent) — after losing the state in 2000 by less than 5,000 votes. In the past four years, Iowa has become a very competitive state for Republicans. What seems to be hurting President Obama — and helping Mitt Romney —according to an nbc-Marist College Poll — is a sense that the nation is on the wrong track. Fifty-four percent of Iowans surveyed in late May shared that view — an unusual result considering Iowa’s relatively low 5.1 percent unemployment rate. In that same nbc-Marist poll, Romney and Obama were tied at 44 percent. Although registered Republicans now outnumber registered Democrats in Iowa, independents make up the state’s largest bloc of registered voters. As a result, winning Iowa will be about who can best appeal to undecided and middle-of the-road voters. The Obama campaign has already opened more than 40 offices across the state and in a briefing with reporters in June, a senior Obama campaign advisor confidently said that they’ll pull out a victory in Iowa because of organization and turnout. However, the president’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage will also increase turnout for Republicans — particularly among social conservatives and evangelicals. Whatever unease they felt about Mitt Romney was put aside when the president reversed his position on same-sex marriage. Since November 2008, Republicans have won back the governorship and the state House, and came very close to winning back the state Senate. That recent history and Iowans’ concerns about increased federal spending point to a narrow victory for Romney in Iowa.

Michigan hasn’t voted for a Republican in a presidential election since 1988. Four years ago, John McCain effectively ceded the state to Barack Obama, who won by a comfortable 16.5 percent margin. Surprisingly, given President Obama’s bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, recent polls show a very tight race between President Obama and Romney, who grew up in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills as the son of a former governor. One reason for the virtual dead heat — an 8.5 percent unemployment rate and a sputtering economy. Another reason is that many independent Michigan voters who enthusiastically supported Barack Obama four years ago have soured on him. It’s this group of independents who helped propel Republican Rick Snyder to victory in his run for governor just two years ago. For Team Obama, winning Michigan and its sixteen electoral votes is critical in their path to 270. For Mitt Romney, it’s a state that the campaign views as part of a second tier of battleground states that even senior advisors privately acknowledge would be difficult to win. Still, by campaigning in Michigan it forces President Obama and his Democratic supporters to spend valuable resources that they would prefer to use elsewhere. While the polls may be close in May and June, this is a state that President Obama will likely win in November.

Turn on the tv in Nevada and you’d think the presidential election was in three days, not three months.

Turn on the tv in Nevada and you’d think the presidential election was in three days, not three months. Nevada on the surface looks like a perfect state for the Romney campaign to turn from blue to red. With an unemployment rate of 11.6 percent in May, the nation’s highest home foreclosure rate, and the highest bankruptcy rate, President Obama clearly has his work cut out for him. But Team Obama is counting on support from the same impressive Democratic machine that registered 100,000 new voters in 2008 to help Obama win Nevada by 12.5 percent. That same organization also helped Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid win reelection comfortably in 2010 — a year when Republicans had impressive gains across the rest of the country, including Nevada’s governorship. More problematic for the Romney campaign is that the state has continued to trend blue since George W. Bush won it in both 2000 and 2004. According to the Nevada secretary of state’s office, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 41 percent to 37 percent. Also helpful to President Obama’s reelection efforts is the increasing role that Latino voters play in the state. According to the Pew Research Center, there are 224,000 eligible Hispanic voters in Nevada, comprising 13.5 percent of the electorate — the sixth highest percentage in the country. This demographic more than any other was critical to helping reelect Harry Reid to the U.S. Senate in 2010 and tipping the state in favor of Barack Obama in 2008. One wildcard in the battle to win Nevada’s six electoral votes is the unanimous decision in mid-July by the House Ethics Committee “to open an investigation into whether” Representative Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, who is challenging Nevada Republican Senator Dean Heller, “used her office to benefit her physician husband’s financial interests.” Although this may affect the close contest for the U.S. Senate, in the 2012 presidential race, Latinos will likely be the difference-maker in keeping Nevada in President Obama’s column.

Ohio, with eighteen electoral votes, is a must-win for the Romney campaign. But Obama currently leads in the polls.

Many political watchers were surprised by the results of an nbc News/Marist poll in late June that showed President Obama and Mitt Romney tied at 45–45 in New Hampshire. After all, this was a state that Barack Obama won by 9.6 percent in 2008 and currently has a 5.0 percent unemployment rate, one of the lowest in the nation. But New Hampshire is just the type of state that the Romney campaign thinks is winnable. Romney, who served as governor in neighboring Massachusetts and has a vacation house in Wolfeboro, is a known commodity in New Hampshire. Not only did he handily win the state’s 2012 Republican primary, he launched his candidacy in New Hampshire and began a six-state bus tour there in early June. Although Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats in the Granite State, nearly 40 percent of voters are not registered with any party. It is these voters that both campaigns are targeting, and the reason that so much attention and money have been pouring into a state with just four electoral votes. Despite its “anti-tax” orthodoxy that would make it a good fit for Mitt Romney’s message, he faces a steep climb in the state: President Obama’s job approval rating remains slightly above 50 percent there, according to a recent University of New Hampshire poll; a Republican hasn’t won the state since 2000; and the Obama campaign has been relentless in organizing the state for the November election. In a race that will likely come down to which side can better turn out its supporters, President Obama has a slight edge over Mr. Romney This may be one of the closest (and most important) races in this presidential election.

Ohio, with its eighteen electoral votes, is a must-win for the Romney campaign. It’s very difficult for Mr. Romney to assemble a path to 270 without the Buckeye State in his column. In 2008, Barack Obama won Ohio by four  percent, the first time a Democrat had won the state since 1996. A true swing state, Ohio in recent elections has proved itself to be a remarkably good predictor of the election winner. The last time the state didn’t pick a winner was in 1960. That streak will likely continue in November. The most recent RealClearPolitics.com average of presidential polls in Ohio has President Obama leading Mitt Romney by 2.6 percent. Campaign ads from both sides continue to blanket the state and both candidates are also making numerous personal appearances. By mid-July, President Obama had visited Ohio eight times, including a post-July 4th bus trip through the northern part of the state, and Mr. Romney had been to the state nine times, including his own bus trip to Brunswick, Troy, and Newark in June. Obama campaign aides are calling Ohio a toss-up — acknowledging that the state’s 7.3 percent unemployment rate in May has made the president’s reelection message a tough sell. The close nature of the race in Ohio is one reason that Rob Portman, the state’s junior U.S. senator, is often mentioned as a possible running-mate to Romney. Portman’s status as the most popular statewide elected official in Ohio could help tip the balance to Romney. Even without Portman on his ticket, Romney’s message as an economic Mr. Fix-it should play well in this rust-belt state. Blue-collar white voters predominate in the state, and President Obama has struggled to win them over. In addition, President Obama’s public approval rating dipped to 44 percent in Ohio in July according to Public Policy Polling, a weak showing for an incumbent president hoping to keep Ohio blue.

For Obama, getting to 270 almost requires a win in Pennsylvania, which holds twenty electoral votes.

For President Obama, getting to 270 almost requires a win in Pennsylvania, a state he carried by a comfortable 10.3 percent margin in 2008. This election cycle, Pennsylvania, which holds twenty electoral votes, will almost certainly be a lot closer. Although Republicans call the Keystone State a toss-up, no Republican presidential candidate has won the state since 1988. However, with a Republican governor and control of both the state House and Senate, the Romney campaign believes that Pennsylvania is a true swing state in 2012. The hard numbers tell a different story. Mr. Obama’s lead over Mitt Romney was nearly eight percent in Pennsylvania in mid-July, according to a RealClearPolitics.com average of presidential polls in the commonwealth. A primary reason for that is Mr. Obama’s sizable 12-point advantage among women voters. Mr. Romney has made numerous trips to Pennsylvania — including a bus trip to the state in June. But perhaps recognizing that winning the state will be an uphill battle if not a stretch, the Romney campaign as of mid-July had not yet begun advertising in the state. While there is no great love for President Obama (his approval rating, according to a late June Quinnipiac poll, was at 45 percent), the numbers are even worse for Mitt Romney. Pennsylvania, despite a 7.3 percent June unemployment rate, will likely remain blue in November.

In 2008, Barack Obama did what no Democratic Presidential candidate had done since 1964 — win the Commonwealth of Virginia. His victory over John McCain by 6.3 percent was built on a coalition of college-educated whites, youth voters, Hispanics, and African Americans. That coalition, the Obama campaign concedes, has frayed a bit over the past four years. And as a result, recent polls indicate that the election in Virginia in November will be a tight one. In mid-July, President Obama led Mitt Romney in a RealClearPolitics.com average of presidential polls in Virginia by just three percent. Since Barack Obama won decisively in the Old Dominion four years ago, the political landscape has changed. Republicans won the governorship and three House seats in large part because they were successful in winning over affluent white-collar voters — the demographic group that went overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama in 2008. The key to winning this state’s thirteen electoral votes for both campaigns will likely be women voters — particularly in Northern Virginia. President Obama, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, held a sixteen-percentage-point advantage over Mitt Romney among Virginia’s female voters, a margin that must be reduced if Romney wants to win this state. Getting to 270 will be nearly impossible for Mr. Romney if he does not win Virginia.

The Romney campaign points to recent developments in Wisconsin to suggest that the state is winnable in November. The solid victory by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in the state’s recall election in early June (along with Ron Johnson’s decisive win over Russ Feingold in the 2010 Senate race) was seen by some senior Romney campaign advisors as a clear indication that the state has undergone significant political changes since Barack Obama won by nearly fourteen percent in 2008. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a native of Kenosha, said after Walker’s win, “It’s a lean-red state right now.” In the aftermath of that comfortable win by Walker, a Rasmussen poll showed Mr. Romney leading President Obama 47–44 in Wisconsin. But this poll may be an outlier. A RealClearPolitics.com average of Wisconsin polls shows President Obama with a 4.4 percent advantage over Mr. Romney. And despite the energy boost the Walker win gave to the Republican base, the reality is that Wisconsin hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984. Furthermore, exit polls from the Wisconsin recall election showed that voters by a margin of 44 to 36 said that President Obama would do a better job of improving the economy than Mitt Romney, and by a margin of 47 to 35 said Obama would do a better job than Romney helping the middle class. Perhaps most importantly, exit polls also indicated that 53 percent of Wisconsin voters said they favored Barack Obama for president; 42 percent favored Mitt Romney. That history, along with Wisconsin’s relatively low May unemployment number of 6.8 percent, doesn’t bode well for Romney. The former Massachusetts governor has an uphill battle in trying to turn Wisconsin and its ten electoral votes from blue to red.

What all this means is that both campaigns — even three months out — are starting to fill in even more of the electoral map and plotting where to spend tens of millions of dollars in campaign cash. If these forecasts hold up, Obama’s victories in Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, would put the president at 266 electoral votes — just four short necessary for another four-year term. Wins by Mitt Romney in Florida and Iowa would take the former Massachusetts governor to 241 electoral votes — leaving him 29 short of the magic number of 270. Ohio and Virginia are true toss-up states. A win by President Obama in either state puts him over the top. Should Mr. Romney go two for two in these battleground states, he’d eke out a 272-266 victory, which would be one of the closest elections in U.S. history.

The perfect storm?

Ultimately, determining the winner of the November presidential election goes beyond projecting winners and losers among the battleground states. This election, like others over the past three decades, will be won by convincing undecided voters across the entire country that things are either moving in the right or wrong direction.

In 2008, Barack Obama’s victory was almost pre-ordained. The American electorate (including a large swath of Republicans) was ready for change after eight years of President George W. Bush. Senator John McCain never fully articulated his vision for the next four years and never convinced independents and undecided voters that he was an agent of change. By contrast, Barack Obama, through his soaring speeches and the historic nature of his candidacy, embodied the mood of the electorate: hope and change. It also didn’t hurt that the mainstream media swooned over his candidacy.

Four years later, the presidential election will turn on the state of the U.S. economy. Three years after the recession officially ended, U.S. employers continue to show reluctance to add new jobs. Only 80,000 jobs were created in June, the third straight month of weak hiring. That anemic type of job growth — which has become the norm in the months leading up to election day — is not nearly enough to reduce the backlog of 13 million unemployed workers.

For Mitt Romney, half the battle is already won. Voter enthusiasm for President Obama — particularly among young voters and white working-class voters — has diminished considerably from four years ago. According to a recent poll commissioned by The Hill, 56 percent of likely voters believe President Obama’s first term has transformed the nation in a negative way. In addition, as most public opinion polls show, a majority of voters are dissatisfied with President Obama’s handling of the economy. They also believe in overwhelming numbers that the country — which is stuck with weak gdp growth and an unemployment rate above eight percent — is moving in the wrong direction. Former President Bill Clinton told cnbc in early June that the U.S. economy is “in a recession.” And Vice President Joe Biden bluntly said at a campaign rally in Iowa in late June that the economy remains a “depression for millions and millions of Americans.” This election, even Obama’s advisors readily acknowledge, will be a referendum on the economic policies of the president.

Governor Romney also appears to be winning the battle for campaign cash. Republicans, in particular, sense that winning the White House is a real possibility and are opening their wallets accordingly. In July, Romney for President, Romney Victory, and the Republican National Committee announced fundraising totals of $106.1 million for June — compared with just $71 million announced by the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Ninety-four percent of all Romney donations received in June were for $250 or less. Super pacs supporting Mitt Romney are also raising money at record levels. These remarkable fundraising numbers mean that Republicans will at the very least be playing on a level playing field against an incumbent president known for his fundraising prowess.

But even that won’t be enough for Romney to win over those crucial swing voters. As history has shown, beating an incumbent president is never easy. Not only must the electorate feel that the economy is dismal, they must reject the incumbent and have confidence in the alternative. They must feel strongly that Mitt Romney has a real plan to grow the economy and cut spending. They must believe that Governor Romney can get America back on the right track and the economy moving in the right direction. That is the Romney campaign’s task in these final months until Election Day. If Mitt Romney puts forward a credible plan to turn things around and completes the sale to undecided voters, he will ride that perfect storm into the White House.