My feeling at the end of the two conventions is that the Republicans had utterly failed to make a case for their party or their candidate, while the Democrats had largely succeeded in making the case for their party – spectacularly so with Bill Clinton’s speech – but had done a more equivocal job of making the case for their candidate (particularly because, after being lauded as a man of steel completely focused on the needs of the middle class, he came off in his own speech as something rather different).
Unsurprisingly, the result was no bounce for Mitt Romney, and a meaningful one for President Obama (though we still need to see how big and how lasting).
So what happens next?
Right now, Obama has to be considered the favorite to win reelection. Romney has not exactly shone in debates in the past, and those are the last events that he has any control over that could change the course of the election. Hoping the other guy slips up, or that external events shake things up, isn’t much of a winning strategy.
If this begins to solidify into conventional wisdom, watch two numbers.
The first is the generic Congressional polls. By choosing Ryan, Romney tied himself to the Congressional Republican Party, and by refusing to campaign on a specific agenda (other than opposing everything President Obama has done), Romney’s own cause has by default become that of the Republican Party, and not much else. Meanwhile, the Democratic Convention, in contrast to some past years, did not shy away at all from making the case for the Democratic Party, in some cases more eloquently than they made a case for the nominee.
So if the conventions really have moved the polls permanently, they may have moved the partisan needle, and not just Obama’s favorability. Rationally, voters who trust Obama personally, but are skeptical of his policies, might be inclined to ticket split. But if voters have formed an impression that they trust the Democrats more than the Republicans, then ticket-splitting is not rational. If the generic Congressional numbers move with the Presidential race numbers, we’ll have some indication that it’s the latter and not the former. The first hint that the Congressional numbers have indeed moved is from Rasmussen’s poll, which shows the Democrats in the lead on the generic ballot for the first time since January (other polls have shown Democratic leads at various points in the past months).
The second number to watch is fundraising totals. The business community – Wall Street in particular – has been overwhelmingly supportive of Mitt Romney this year. But that is neither typical – there was a lot of support for Obama last time around, from Wall Street in particular – nor particularly wise if a Romney victory is doubtful.
Paul Krugman suspects that the Romney campaign’s attempts to spin away President Obama’s poll lead is an effort to prevent corporate donors from hedging their bets by donating to Obama as well. I doubt that – spinning is what campaigns do; they don’t need a reason. But he’s right that if it looks like Obama has a good chance of winning, he should suddenly discover that Wall Street and other corporate donors who have been shunning him become much more generous. President Obama’s fundraising numbers have already been perfectly respectable, but if they become substantially better than respectable that will be another sign that the smart money thinks this game is probably over.