OBAMA NEEDS TO WIN THREE ELECTIONS. RIGHT NOW, HE'S PROBABLY LOSING TWO.
On the one hand, President Obama seems to be on course to win the Electoral College -- Pollster gives him 271 electoral votes right now, Intrade has him with a 63.4% chance of victory as I type, Nate Silver has him at 73.1%. On the other hand, he's down 1 in the new ABC/Washington Post tracking poll, down 5 according to Gallup, and trailing Mitt Romney by a point or so in popular-vote poll averages.
Does that matter? I think it might matter for the next four years.
I think Obama will win the Electoral College. I can spell out a scenario in which the right then steals the election (by persuading us that 2000 is irrelevant to now, by hypocritically demanding that "the will of the people" be obeyed, by digging into the pasts of obscure electors). But it's not clear that will happen, and maybe it's the kind of thing that even the right-wing noise machine can't pull off.
Nevertheless, if Obama wins a second term in a split election, the media will treat him as a loser who backed into office and doesn't really deserve to be there. That wouldn't be true for Romney if he won the presidency this way, because the press has now decided it likes him more than Obama, and because, well, he's Republican Daddy -- just like George W. Bush twelve years ago. Oh, sure, if Romney somehow wins this way, the press will ask him, very politely, to live up to the tone of his debate appearances and govern from the center -- but if he then charges hard to the right, the press will just sit back and speak with awe of his "bold" moves.
The press, treating a split Obama victory as a loss, will demand that he tack right in response to the circumstances of his win. This is what Obama will face going into his second term.
So Romney just has to win the Electoral College. Obama really needs to win the Electoral College and the popular vote so that he can have a third victory -- victory over a press that will tell us he's not really president, or at least he shouldn't be (a meme that will drive public opinion).
The press right now is parroting Romney talking points about the lack of an Obama second-term vision. It doesn't matter that, as Paul Krugman says, Romney's "vision" is threadbare and empty, and Obama's is more substantial and reality-based. Obama isn't really getting across the notion that he has ideas for the future.
Part of this stems from the way he's running his campaign. I really, really understand why he's touting early voting and going on Leno and putting out Lena Dunham ads and so on -- he's trying to drum up turnout among groups that aren't seen as likely to vote (non-whites, "waitress moms," young people). That granular approach will probably get him to 270 electoral votes. It might get him to 50.0001% of the popular vote -- though I wonder.
In the last days of the campaign, I think he should strike more of a balance between these voting-bloc moves and bigger, broader pronouncements of a "vision." Doing that might impress the sorts of voters regarded by pollsters as likely to vote, and thus give Obama a slight uptick in the likely-voter polls. It also might get the press off his back.
I'm not saying he should abandon the segmented appeals. But he should go big, too. Maybe then he can win all the races in November.