The latest narrative would have you believe the election is practically over. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum (and even Newt Gingrich) continue their boxing match, dispiriting their base and turning off independents. While President Obama has spent this week talking about energy and Israel, the campaign memes have focused on Romney's rich-man gaffes and Santorum's fixation on social issues. Meanwhile, the economy continues to improve, further fueling Obama’s comfort in the polls. How could he lose?
But hold on. Follow the statistical evidence rather than the web’s buzz and the outcome is less decisive. Polls based on the "if the election were held today" premise show a scattered outcome in November. Cobble them all together, like the folks at Real Clear Politics have done, and you find a statistical dead heat. With a faceless GOP challenger, Obama is only up by 1.8 percent (45-43.8 percent)—well within most polls’ margin of error. Obama beats Romney with a slightly higher spread (49-44.6 percent). With Santorum it gets bigger (49.3-44.3) and against Gingrich, Obama wins decisively (52-39.6 percent).
Early polling, of course, can have its drawbacks. The right-leaning Commentary Magazine, frustrated by the media’s ‘Romney’s inevitability’ narrative, dug up numbers from the 1980 election when Jimmy Carter ran for reelection against an aging actor from California. In one primary, polls showed Carter blowing out Ronald Reagan, 60-34 percent. But on Election Day in Illinois, the outcome flipped and Reagan bested Carter 50-42. The takeaway may be that polls give us a snapshot, but the media’s narrative doesn’t always match the electoral reality.