Fiscal Cliff 2013: Mitt Romney Has A Chance To Be The Hero

Published: PolicyMic (November 30, 2012)

I have no idea whether Mitt Romney will ever see this editorial. While I do know at least one of my articles was noticed by the erstwhile Republican candidate’s inner circle (a piece from six months ago that drew complaints from his former foreign policy adviser Richard Grenell), that hardly assures that anything else I write will make its way to him.

Nevertheless, as the partisan gridlock preventing Republicans and Democrats from finding a way off the so-called “fiscal cliff” brings us closer and closer to economic catastrophe, I figure the quixotic hope that Romney will read these words is worth pursuing. After all, America’s fate may hinge on Romney fully appreciating the rare opportunity that has been presented to him:

He has the chance to be remembered by history as a hero among Also Rans.

The term “Also Ran,” for those unfamiliar with it, refers to a presidential aspirant who was nominated by one of the major parties of his time only to be vanquished in the general election. While a handful of Also Rans were sufficiently accomplished to avoid having their legacies be primarily defined by their unsuccessful national candidacies – Henry Clay as America’s premier parliamentarian, Winfield Scott as one of its greatest military commanders, Horace Greeley as a pioneering newspaper editor, Charles Evans Hughes as the Supreme Court’s centrist sage during the New Deal era, Adlai Stevenson and Barry Goldwater as among their respective parties’ most influential intellectual heavyweights and policy innovators – the vast majority of the names in the long litany of Also Rans are obscure to all but the most devoted historical scholars. Because Romney is surely aware of this, few can truly understand the tempest of emotions that must be raging inside of him right now.

This no doubt explains the palpable anguish coiling beneath his controversial post-election comments, which attributed his loss to Obama giving “gifts” to minority voters. Unfortunately for him, those remarks have only worsened his likely standing among future historians, who are rarely kind to Also Rans they believe to have been sore losers.

On the other hand, when an Also Ran sets aside his disappointment and works with the man who defeated him in order to achieve a greater good, he is suddenly imbued with the aura of greatness. In one fell swoop he becomes an inspiring figure, a statesman worthy of emulation, a patriot in the deepest sense of the term. His critics may disparage him in other ways, but even his fiercest detractors won’t be able to take away the nobility of his post-election actions – or prevent them from being recalled as his foremost legacy.

The men who have earned this distinction can be counted on one hand. Although not technically an Also Ran, John Adams is widely lauded for peacefully relinquishing power  after losing to Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800, thereby showing the world that the political experiment known as democracy could indeed work. There was Stephen Douglas in 1860, who despite a lifelong rivalry with Abraham Lincoln toured the South to calm their hysterical reactions to Lincoln’s impending election and prevent the mass secessions that he knew would trigger a Civil War (even putting himself in considerable physical peril in the process). More than 80 years later, Wendell Willkie performed a comparable service to his country by urging Americans to support Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership during World War II, despite the fact that both men continued to strongly disagree on the economic policy questions that had defined their respective campaigns in the 1940 presidential election.

If Mitt Romney works with President Obama on a compromise both men can support and then uses his clout to openly push for that measure’s passage, his name will be added to this list. Not only will he have played a crucial role in preventing an economic disaster, but he will have demonstrated that bipartisanship is possible even in times as fiercely divisive as our own. This may not remove the sting of knowing that he will never be able to serve as president (as George McGovern once observed to Walter Mondale, the hurt never fully wears off), but it will serve as an admirable close to Romney’s career in national politics.

Instead of being remembered as just another forgettable Also Ran, he will be cited as an example of the very best that exists in America’s unique political character. More important, Romney will have rendered an invaluable service to his country.

For more on defeated presidential candidates, I highly recommend Irving Stone’s classic book, “They Also Ran.”

Fiscal Cliff Deadline: 5 Reasons We Should Celebrate Republicans Opting for Higher Taxes

Published: PolicyMic (November 29, 2012)

The impending so-called “fiscal cliff” has not been kind to Grover Norquist.

As political junkies are well aware, the conservative lobbyist who founded Americans for Tax Reform is best known for pressuring Republican politicians to sign his Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which puts signatories on the record as vowing to never support marginal income tax increases, as well as refrain from reducing or eliminating deductions or credits without matching tax rate reductions. Although Norquist has been successful in getting prominent conservatives to sign his pledge for more than two decades — indeed, only 10 of the nearly 300Republicans currently serving in Congress have dared refuse to affix their names to the document — the threat of economic calamity has caused many legislators to renege, from Saxby Chambliss and Lindsey Graham in the Senate to Steve LaTourette and Peter King in the House. While this trickle has yet to become a flood, it is a welcome enough sign that I think it’s time for…

THE TOP FIVE REASONS TO CELEBRATE THE POSSIBLE DOWNFALL OF GROVER NORQUIST

5. It could usher in an end to the era of government by temper tantrum.

From Newt Gingrich’s government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 to the debt ceiling fiasco last year, conservatives have spent the past two decades trying to force Democratic presidents to accept their policies by threatening real harm to the country if they don’t get their way. The nation never wins when they do this, so it’s refreshing to see a possible change in attitude.

4. It would be a welcome sign of graciousness in the post-election season.

This is related to the previous point but nevertheless deserves to be mentioned separately. After Mitt Romney’s appallingly bitter rant blamed the president’s re-election on “gifts” Barack Obama allegedly gave to young and minority voters, the Republican Party desperately needs to show that it can accept the mandate of the American people with grace and class. While distancing itself from Romney’s remarks is a good start (as party leaders like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Congressman Paul Ryan have admirably done), working with the White House on avoiding the fiscal cliff would be a far more substantive gesture.

3. It would be a victory for democracy.

For all of his rhetoric on “liberty” and American ideals, Norquist’s actions show a shockingly blatant disregard for the will of the people. Despite having never been elected by the people themselves, both Norquist and the wealthy backers of Americans for Tax Reform have no qualms about using their abundant financial resources into bullying legislators into following their will. If any lobbyist needs to be taken down a few notches, it’s Norquist.

2. It would pressure liberals to make compromises as well.

Whether the left wants to admit it or not, entitlement and other social welfare spending is growing at an alarmingly unsustainable rate. If we are to avoid a truly devastating fiscal catastrophe in the future, it is imperative that we find a way of deflating this balloon now, even as we guarantee that the most vulnerable Americans aren’t harmed in the process. This will require us to be open to tricky compromises and tough sacrifices — and none of that will happen if Republicans remain intransigent about raising taxes on the wealthy. The unavoidable reality is that if they want us to budge, they need to show a willingness to be flexible themselves. Norquist’s pledge makes such flexibility impossible.

1. It would save America’s economy.

This is the most obvious point, but it can’t be stressed enough. If the automatic tax increases and spending cuts mandated by the debt ceiling compromise of 2011 take effect, it is quite likely that they will undermine our already-fragile economic recovery. Saxby Chambliss put it best:

“I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge. If we do it his way, then we’ll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that.”

Petraeus Affair: Democrats and Republicans Both Find Bipartisanship in Infidelity”

Published: PolicyMic (November 27, 2012)

This may seem odd coming from the pen of a liberal Democrat (er, keyboard), but here it goes: Gerald Ford is my favorite president of the past forty years.

There are plenty of good reasons for liberals to admire Ford. Foremost among them is the fact that he was the last genuinely moderate Republican to inhabit the White House, with his battle against Ronald Reagan in the 1976 presidential primaries marking the final time a centrist obtained the top slot on the GOP national ticket without making egregious concessions to the party’s fringe elements (ironically, Reagan himself would be considered insufficiently conservative by many Republicans today).

In addition, despite being stigmatized as America’s first unelected president (he was appointed to the vice presidency to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew and became president after Richard Nixon resigned), Ford racked up a wide array of important achievements during his nine hundred day presidency.

He made the brave decision to pardon Nixon, willingly accepting the public’s harsh backlash in order to bring closure to the Watergate scandal; guaranteed special education programs throughout the United States by signing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act into law; stood up to right-wing misogyny by pushing for the Equal Rights Amendment and supporting his wife when she praised Roe v. Wade (although Ford believed abortion laws should be left to the states, he later came out as pro-choice); thawed Cold War tensions by signing the Helsinki Accords; prevented an international crisis by retaking the USS Mayaguez from the Khmer Rouge; and laid the foundation for the Israel-Egypt peace treaty by attaching American aid to Israel to that nation’s signing of the Sinai Interim Agreement.

That said, Ford recently came to my mind for a completely different reason. As new details emerge about the David Petraeus affair, I was reminded of an interview between Ford and journalist Thomas DeFrank, one conducted for a candid tell-all on the former president’s life and political beliefs that both parties agreed would not be published until after his death. Ford marveled at how many successful men had allowed their libido to override their better judgment. One particularly sage observation from that exchange deserves to be quoted in full:

“You have to think of the ten bad things that could happen to you from something like that and the one good thing, and tell yourself the one good thing will get taken care of some other way.”

Indeed. While there is nothing new about the famous and powerful succumbing to their carnal instincts, one might assume that the growth of electronic journalism and social media would have had a discouraging effect. Instead, the last half-dozen years alone have had both a senator and a governor exposed as johns, two congressmen taken down by sexually explicit adulterous e-mails, three more face legal charges for sexual harassment and/or assault, two virulently anti-homosexual politicians get caught up in gay sex scandals, and a former presidential candidate father an illegitimate child while his wife slowly died of breast cancer.

And that is just the short list. The two parties may not agree on much, but when it comes to infidelity and sexual waywardness, a genuine bipartisanship seems to exist.

It doesn’t take any special insight into the human animal to understand why this keeps happening. Not only are we biologically programmed to desire sexual gratification from people we find physically and/or intellectually attractive, but also we live in a society that conflates our sexual desirability with our greater self-worth. For women, this usually results in brutal social pressure for them to adhere to an “ideal” standard in their physical appearance (a subject I addressed in greater detail here). Men, on the other hand, tend to judge each other based on the perceived scope of their sexual conquests, with the quantity and/or attractiveness of a man’s sexual partners used as a primary means of validating or invalidating his overall masculinity (inversely, promiscuous women are viciously condemned). Even as we denounce public figures who allow this drive to get the better of them, the ethos is reinforced practically everywhere else we turn, from our popular culture (as seen in too many movies, television shows, books, and music videos to count) to our personal lives (as anyone who has been in a mainstream high school or college can attest).

This is why I find Ford’s perspective here to be so valuable. While it’s important for us to try to eradicate the gender prejudices responsible for creating this sexual climate in the first place, the sobering reality is that these attitudes have existed since the dawn of civilization. They can still be overcome, of course — and I say this primarily because they must be overcome — but until that happens, men who have great personal gifts to offer their country need to be admonished from throwing them away.

That brings us back to why a liberal Democrat would prefer Ford to any other modern president. Although progressives will be able to figure out why I rank him above most of his successors (Carter is disqualified by his incompetence, Reagan by pushing America to the right on economic and social issues, both George Bushes by kowtowing to Reagan’s New Right coalition, and Obama by the fact that his story is still being written), they may be surprised that Ford beats Bill Clinton in my estimation. The reason for this is that, for all of Clinton’s accomplishments — including a record-breaking period of unprecedented prosperity, a balanced budget, welfare reform, and the creation of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) — he still allowed the Lewinsky scandal to drag the nation into a costly and exhausting impeachment trial. Although it’d be wrong to claim that his sexual indiscretions negate his impressive record (as many right-wingers have done), the undeniable reality is that his pursuit of the “one good thing” that comes from infidelity caused him to leave an ineffable blemish on his presidency. He put a shortsighted pursuit of pleasure and sexual validation over the integrity of his legacy … and, as with David Petraeus today, America paid the price.

If other talented public figures want to avoid putting themselves and their country through a similar ordeal, they must resist temptation by remembering Gerald Ford’s common sense advice.

Happy Birthday Joe Biden: Tribute to the Man Who Helped Obama Get Reelected

Published: The Morning Call (November 20, 2012), PolicyMic (November 20, 2012)

In honor of Joe Biden’s 70th birthday, I think it’s time he received credit for the indispensable role he played in Barack Obama’s re-election.

Flash back to the week after the first presidential debate. Romney was widely believed to have triumphed over Obama in that forensic exhibition, due in large part to the president’s disinterested showing. After more than a month of maintaining a solid lead over Romney in national polls, Obama’s diffidence had caused his standing to plummet so badly that he was slightly behind in most surveys of the popular vote, as well as gradually losing his electoral college edge. Spirits were low among Democrats, in stark contrast to the euphoria that followed the lackluster Republican National Convention and the calamity of the “47 percent” tape.

By winning the vice presidential debate, Biden began the process of changing that.

Most of us don’t remember it that way now. When people are asked about the cause of Obama’s last-minute turnaround, Hurricane Sandy or the Democrats’ broader demographic base are far more likely to come up as answers. Nevertheless, the data indisputably shows that before the Biden-Ryan debate, Romney was gaining political momentum at a steady clip. Viewers of the debate (the third most watched vice presidential debate in history) were much more likely to view Biden as having won (50% to 31% according to a CBS poll of uncommitted voters and 42% to 35% to a Reuters poll, with CNN only giving Ryan a 48% to 44% edge because it accidentally polled 8% more Republicans than the general population). After the debate, Romney’s political momentum had been significantly slowed down, if not entirely halted.

The reason for this is simple. After watching Obama spend most of the first debate carefully avoid saying anything that might appear too bold or risky, voters were now treated to Biden’s brazen pugnacity.

When Ryan tried to make political hay over the Benghazi attack, Biden disdainfully referred to his assertions as “a bunch of malarkey” before thoroughly deconstructing the flaws in that line of GOP criticism. He was similarly succinct in his condemnation of Ryan’s claim that Obama had allowed Iran to get closer to developing a nuclear weapon, memorably summing up his objections with the declaration that “Facts matter.” As Ryan launched into a boilerplate attack on Obama’s stimulus legislation, Biden called out his hypocrisy by pointing to letters the Wisconsin Congressman had sent to the vice president personally asking for stimulus funds for his own constituents. Later, when Ryan tried to pass off his Medicare plan as bipartisan, Biden embarrassed him by refusing to let him ignore that not one prominent Democrat – including the Senator from Oregon and former Clinton budget director who initially helped him put it together – still supported Ryan’s final proposal.

In short, Biden was willing to give as good as he got from Ryan, and nothing inspires Americans more than a sign that one of their political leaders has guts.

This isn’t to overstate the importance of the Biden-Ryan debate or claim that it deserves primary credit for turning things around. Even the best vice presidential candidates haven’t been able to carry elections when the top halves of their tickets were wanting, as Lloyd Bentsen famously learned when his trouncing of Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate failed to translate into votes for Michael Dukakis. Nevertheless, Biden’s victory was the key first step in restoring political vitality to a campaign that had seemed dangerously close to becoming moribund following Obama’s performance in the first debate. It showed that Democrats had just as much as fight in them as Republicans, that as Franklin Roosevelt once declared (during his first re-election campaign in 1936), “never before in all our history have these forces [organized money] been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.”

If Obama wants to fare well in the tough political battles that lie ahead of him over the next four years, he would be well-advised to follow the credo so perfectly articulated by Roosevelt – and so impressively displayed by Biden.

Chris Christie Avoids Fat Jokes About Twinkies… And Real Talk About Unions

Published: PolicyMic (November 19, 2012)

Say what you will about Governor Chris Christie, but the man has a great sense of humor about himself. The latest instance of his jocular self-deprecation took place on Monday, when he was asked how he felt about the increasing possibility that Twinkies will become a thing of the past.

“I’m on ‘Saturday Night Live’ enough. You think you’re getting me behind this microphone having me talk about Twinkies? No, no, no, no, no. It’s bad that I even said the word ‘Twinkie’ from behind this microphone.”

I feel your pain, Chris Christie. We may disagree on education reformeconomic policyabortion, and gay rights, but being a “husky” man transcends these distinctions. The prospect of a world without Twinkies brings a lump to our throats that is more than a little unbecoming.

Of course, one doesn’t have to be a junk food addict to feel invested in the Twinkie case. When Hostess Brands announced its reason for moving to liquidate and sell off its assets in bankruptcy court, it placed most of the blame on the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), which has been on strike since November 9th. According to CEO Gregory Rayburn (who was hired to restructure the company after it filed for conventional Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January), the company couldn’t maintain sustainable profit margins while the bakers’ union was striking. Its owners eventually decided that their best move was to disband the company and lay off its 18,500 employees.

When conservatives decry labor movements, they often point to cases like this one, arguing that unions cut so sharply into the profits of employers that they create fewer jobs or implement mass layoffs to compensate. Yet these arguments ignore the reasons why these workers needed a union to fight for their rights in the first place. After Hostess first filed for bankruptcy in 2004, BCTGM agreed to major wage and benefit concessions while Hostess laid off thousands of workers. Although reports indicate that Hostess saved $110 million through such measures, the company did not reinvest this money back into the business. Instead, the company continued to flounder until it again requested significant concessions from its unionized members, even as it violated federal labor law by stopping payment on its pension obligations. All the while, Rayburn and nearly a dozen other top executives gave themselves raises ranging between 35% and 300%.

In short, this isn’t the right-wing fairy tale you hear bandied about so often, in which overly-enabled “takers” try to leech so much money off the productive “makers” that they wind up bringing a company to its knees. Employers and employees participate in a mutual economic undertaking that common decency holds should require sacrifices from both sides. As happens so often, the workers were willing to accept losses while the people at the top refused to accept any of their own. Because so many of the fundamental protections guaranteed to labor by early 20th Century presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt were eliminated by Ronald Reagan and his successors, workers have lacked the power to effectively defend their own economic interests and rights. That is why – right, wrong, or indifferent – private sector employers usually have the upper hand.

Although Christie’s biggest fight has been against a public union (the New Jersey Education Association) instead of a private one, the issues at stake here cut to the heart of one of the defining problems of American economic life today. On the one side are conservatives and libertarians who – whether their ideological origins trace back to Tea Party pamphlets, Ayn Rand manifestos, or the pseudoscholarly world of Austrian economics – are consistent in finding a way to vilify the struggling members of America’s working class. On the other are the liberals, moderates, and those who simply possess a humanitarian bent, all of whom agree with Franklin Roosevelt’s immortal maxim:

“Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living. He may by sloth or crime decline to exercise that right; but it may not be denied him. We have no actual famine or death; our industrial and agricultural mechanism can produce enough and to spare. Our government formal and informal, political and economic, owes to everyone an avenue to possess himself of a portion of that plenty sufficient for his needs, through his own work.”

For that to happen, we need to start by seriously exploring the deeper socioeconomic problems that put the 18,500 Hostess workers in this jam in the first place. One way to do that would be to hear what future national leaders like Chris Christie really think of both this strike and the larger plight of America’s beleaguered working class … all fat jokes aside.

Obama Wins Reelection, But Democrats Should Show Grace in Aftermath of Victory

Published: PolicyMic (November 7, 2012)

“When news of the surrender first reached our lines our men commenced firing a salute of a hundred guns in honor of the victory. I at once sent word, however, to have it stopped. The Confederates were now our prisoners, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”

By now, most of you probably recognize this quote as the famous passage from Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs in which he discussed Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. Its relevance today should be just as obvious for those of us who care about the integrity and character of our political process…

Now that liberals have won, we need to make sure that we show some class.

In part this is because our opposition has, for the last four years, been so distinctly lacking in that quality. Few political movements have shown the level of vitriol toward a single president as that displayed by the Tea Party against President Barack Obama since early 2009. What’s worse, the various groups who support liberalism have been victimized by attacks unprecedented in their viciousness — women for demanding the right to control their own bodies (see Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, the contraception controversy), racial minorities for insisting they are just as American as whites (see the bitter race-centric conspiracy theories against Obama, the galvanizing of anti-Hispanic sentiment vis-a-vis the immigration issue), the poor for being victimized by the inherent inequities of post-Reagan capitalism (see Romney’s “47%” comments, the Ayn Randesque rhetoric used by Tea Party protesters). In light of this context, it is very understandable why so many on the left want to gloat.

We need to curb that impulse. In the end, no matter how much we may believe in the correctness of our own cause, it is important to remember that the millions of Americans who supported Mitt Romney were just as sincerely passionate about their own convictions. The agonizing disappointment that we would have felt had Obama lost is precisely what they’re feeling right now. Just as they have a responsibility to avoid behaving like sore losers, so too must we behave like gracious winners.

If we fail to pass this basic test of civility, we will show that we learned nothing from the ugliness of the right-wing’s anti-Obama behavior. Our job must be to observe their example and then demonstrate our superiority to it, not conclude that the vindication of Obama’s reelection justifies diminishing ourselves by emulating it. I am reminded of the concession speech delivered by my personal political hero, Adlai Stevenson, after losing to Dwight Eisenhower 60 years ago. He compared how he felt to the reaction of Abraham Lincoln back when he lost an important election:

“He said he felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.”

There, but for the grace of God, goes us. That is why — even as we revel in our happiness for the historic victory achieved for America last night — we need to avoid being cruel toward the people who genuinely believe this great country lost.

Top 4 Reasons Why Exit Poll Results Are Completely Meaningless

Published: PolicyMic (November 6, 2012)

While pundits and pollsters alike will start crowing about the exit poll results soon, the truth is they could not matter less.

Here are the top four reasons why you shouldn’t care about the exit polls:

1) Non-response bias

In 2004, exit polls gave Senator John Kerry such a massive lead over President George W. Bush that Democrats began to prematurely celebrate based on what turned out to be unreliable figures. The same thing happened again in 2008, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent. (Obama did win that year, after all.)

2) Early voting

While the non-response bias may unfairly favor Democrats during exit polling, the disproportionate tendency of liberals to turn out for early voting could have an equivalent effect favoring the Republicans. Weighting and adjusting exit poll returns to account for early voting is an imprecise science at best.

3) Short-term impact

After all, it is the election returns that really make a difference. The law has never declared someone to be president of the United States based on exit polling results. While an obsession with polling makes sense in the days leading up to the election, it’s a tad absurd when hypothetical results will be replaced with the genuine article in a few hours.

4) Post-poll acrimony

This may seem like an odd point to make, but it has to be said. Having been an active political junkie through four presidential election cycles, I can safely that I have never seen anyone react to exit polls in a flattering manner. Recipients of bad news will rend their clothes and beat their chests like medieval flagellants; beneficiaries of good news will strut and crow like obnoxious schoolchildren. It’s just unpleasant.

While this last problem might be tolerable if the exit polls correlated to the actual balloting results or had a direct effect on the election itself, the fact that neither of these things is the case (see points 1 to 3) means that exit polls should be dismissed as so much news static.

Electoral College Map: Obama Will Win, See State By State Breakdown

Published: PolicyMic (November 6, 2012)

Jesse Merkel, my “opponent” in offering a prediction for the 2012 election, wrote this piece about me after the fact.

Editor’s Note: In this special Election Day feature, PolicyMic is spotlighting the election predictions of two of our most prominent pundits, conservative Jesse Merkel and liberal Matthew Rozsa. As a twist, we also got them to agree a little friendly bet: Whichever one comes closest to correctly gauging today’s results will have a tribute written about him by the loser. This means that if Barack Obama is the victor, Jesse will have to pen an encomium to Rozsa, while if Mitt Romney wins, Rozsa will have to compose an article singing Merkel’s praises. We did this not only to add a dash of spice to election night, but also to stress the importance of being able to disagree without becoming disagreeable.

Election 2012 Prediction: Before the first presidential debate, Barack Obama was on his way to being re-elected by a comfortable (if not landslide) margin in both the popular and electoral vote. As soon as Mitt Romney was declared the “winner” of that event, however, Republicans began declaring that their champion had turned the race around. While subsequent polls have confirmed this to be the case, they have also showed Romney heading for a defeat comparable to that suffered by Hubert Humphrey at the hands of Richard Nixon in 1968 (a historical analogy to which I will return later). Despite making the battle for the popular vote among the closest in history, Romney will ultimately be thwarted by his opponent’s insurmountable advantage in the Electoral College.

That advantage has been one of the marvels of the Obama campaign. Even during the nadir of the President’s re-election bid (i.e., the period following the October 3rd debate), he still maintained sound, if somewhat diminished, leads in many of this election’s key swing states. Had the political conditions that existed in the fortnight after the initial debate remained unaltered for the rest of the race, Obama would still have picked up Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. When added to the solidly pro-Obama states, these victories alone would have put 277 electoral votes in the President’s column, seven more than the 270 needed to win in the Electoral College.

For this, Obama can thank the underrated strength of his campaign’s ground operation, as well as the shrewdness with which they have tailored his political message based on regional issues (e.g., stressing Romney’s opposition to the auto bailout in states like Michigan and Ohio). That said, the natural vicissitudes of American politics have been just as important to his fortunes. For one thing, nearly five weeks have passed since Romney’s perceived triumph in the first debate, more than enough time for the political momentum he gained from that event to peter out on its own. Accelerating that process was the general impression that Obama had at the very least held his own in the second and third debates, which helped offset some of the damage from the first contest. Finally, approval of the President’s handling of Hurricane Sandy has given him a statistically significant bounce in the polls. As a result, the swing states of Colorado, New Hampshire, and Virginia, all of which were trending toward Romney in the days when the first debate remained freshest in the public’s memory, are now more likely to go to Obama. While Romney has held on to the post-October 3rd leads he developed in North Carolina and Florida, those acquisitions won’t be enough to tip things in his favor. Instead, the President has risen from the rock bottom figure of 277 electoral votes to a probable 303 electoral votes. This is where he stands now… and why I predict that Obama will defeat Romney by 303 to 235 in the Electoral College.

The popular vote has a very different story. Barring a few brief hiccups, Obama was consistently ahead of Romney prior to the first debate; after it, national polls have repeatedly flipped the popular vote back and forth between the two men. This is where the Humphrey campaign offers a useful historical parallel: Like Romney with Obama, Humphrey trailed behind Nixon through the bulk of the campaign until a single game-changing moment roughly five weeks before Election Day caused him to rapidly improve in the polls (due in Humphrey’s case to a widely-lauded speech on the Vietnam War). Had the election been held one week later, it is quite possible that Humphrey would have been among the handful of Also Rans to win the popular vote while losing the election itself (including Andrew Jackson in 1824, Samuel Tilden in 1876, Grover Cleveland in 1888, and Al Gore in 2000). Instead, Humphrey fell behind Nixon in the popular vote by 0.7%, making the 1968 election one of six in which less than a single percentage point separated the two major candidates (the others being in 1880, 1884, 1888, 1960, 1968, and 2000). More importantly, he lost in the Electoral College by 302 to 191 (with 45 electoral votes going to segregationist third-party candidate George Wallace). Like Obama, Nixon had carefully built up a firewall of strength in the one place that, for better or worse, matters most.

My hunch is that Romney will also lose the popular vote by less than one percent, although for the sake of convenience, I’m rounding Obama to 50% and Romney to 49% (as well as giving 1% to Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, with the rest being split among various third parties). This would leave Obama with the dubious distinction of having the closest popular margin of victory ever received by a re-elected president, a record currently held by none other than George W. Bush (who beat John Kerry in 2004 by 2.4%). Of course, it is also quite possible that Romney will do what Humphrey could not and actually win the popular vote, which would make Obama the only incumbent to win another term without a plurality of the votes cast. Either way, one can safely bet against the Republicans actually winning the White House this year. What journalist Theodore H. White wrote of Humphrey will be just as true of Romney:

“As if by defiance of all political gravity, [he] had converted the downsweep of early autumn into a soaring upward streak that was to miss the rung of the magic trapeze by finger-short margins.”

PS: I refer the conservatives who insist the state polls are systematically biased toward Obama to this excellent article by statistician Nate Silver. All of the conclusions reached here are based on my independent analysis of the polls compiled at www.realclearpolitics.com.