Will the race for the White House be over before the debates are?

Will the race for the White House be over before the debates are?

Edmund in Tokyo’s inaugural guest slot

If the US presidential election were held tomorrow, it looks fairly clear who would win. Nate Silver’s “Nowcast”, showing his model’s estimate of the probability of an Obama win would be if the election day polls were the same as the polls today, currently stands at 95.8%. Neither Silver nor the betting markets currently think an Obama win in November is anything like that likely. Silver’s forecast for the actual election stands at a more conservative 77.5%, while Intrade still gives Romney a 30% shot.

Absent a serious failure in the state polling, Romney backers need to hope that something will happen to turn the race around before the voters cast their ballots. They may hope that the economy will take a dive, or that Obama will make some kind of serious blunder. They’ll be hoping that Romney will do well in the debates. They’ll be hoping that the money they’ve saved up for the last couple of weeks will give them enough of a boost to shift the dial. And they may even hope that after a succession of negative news cycles, a week or two without serious mistakes will be enough to close the gap.

But there may be less time left for that to happen than it appears. Bill Turque’s piece in the Washington Post looks at the impact of early voting. In 2010 a full third of votes were cast before election day, and this could go up to 40% this time around.

Looking at the swing states that Romney can’t afford to lose, Iowa, Virginia and North Carolina are already voting. Litigation-permitting, voting in the key state of Ohio begins on October 2nd, the day before the first debate. Romney could put in strong performances in the debates and turn his deficit into a lead, but for many voters in key states the election will already be over.

A mitigating factor here will be that undecided or weakly committed voters will probably less likely to vote early, and more inclined to wait and vote on the say. But both campaigns will have serious efforts underway to bank as many votes as they can in advance. It is of course possible that Romney could overturn a deficit in early voting by winning traditional election-day voters by bigger margins, but overturning Obama’s small but consistent lead already looks like a fairly high bar. Getting 50% of swing state voters plus one looks just about achievable with good turnout and a following wind. 51% or 52% looks exceedingly tough.

Romney could still turn this race around. But he needs to do it fast.

Edmund in Tokyo

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