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The State of the Race — What Might Change?

My view of the presidential race has been consistent during the past 15 months. Throughout that period, it has seemed to me that President Obama’s re-election chances, assuming the Republicans nominate Mitt Romney, are between 45 and 55 percent. And so it seems now.

But more useful than odds-making is an analysis of what might cause the race, wherever it stands now, to change, and which candidate the change would likely benefit. The main thing that could change the race is what Harold Macmillan (and John Hinderaker) would call “events” – major developments that come more or less out-of-the-blue. However, by their nature we cannot reliably predict what these developments will be, how the candidates will react, and who they will favor.

We do know that economic developments could significantly alter the race. It seems likely that the economy will continue to improve over the next months, but that any improvement will continue to be very slight. Obama might gain in this scenario, but only marginally.

Mitt Romney’s image might change, now that he’s not under constant attack from his own party and now that he has more freedom to present himself as less stridently conservative. Swing voters may begin to notice that he looks presidential and seems knowledgeable and competent when it comes to economic matters.

But a stiff is a stiff. Since he stopped being governor, Romney has spent more than two years campaigning for president. If he had the ability to connect meaningfully with voters, we would have seen it manifested by now. Romney may gain as Republican support consolidates, but only marginally.

Oddly, it may be Obama, the incumbent, whose image changes significantly. Polls show that his personal popularity is what’s keeping him afloat. Voters don’t very much like his policies and his results, but they continue to like him.

The reasons are pretty straightforward. First, he made a great first impression, and such impressions tend to last. Second, people want to like their president. Third, people want to like the first black president.

As his presidency has faltered, though, Obama has become increasingly irritable and negative. It’s unlikely that many voters have noticed because few follow the day-to-day utterances of the president.

But the electorate pays attention during the final months of the campaign, and especially during the presidential debates. If they see the whiney, defensive, and nasty side of Obama, he will pay a price.

In theory, Obama should be able to avoid this pitfall. His surrogates can do the attack dog thing, while he takes the high road. As for the debates, history shows that the sitting president is allowed one bad debate, especially if it’s the first one. So Obama just needs to keep his inner nasty partisan in check for a few hours.

But Obama’s arrogance works against him here. This is the man who famously proclaimed himself a better speechwriter than his speechwriters, a better political director than his political director, etc.

Presumably, he also considers himself a better attack dog than his attack dogs. If Obama continues to sense that his presidency may be slipping away, he is unlikely to leave to others the dirty work he feels is needed to preserve it.

The adverse consequences of such self-indulgence may well be more than marginal.

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