While presidential debates obviously can make a big difference in determining the election, they usually only make a small difference. Based on how things stand now and how I expect the campaign to develop for the last eight weeks, my semi-final prediction -- quite disturbingly -- is that Barack Obama will be re-elected president with 274 electoral votes to 264 for Mitt Romney. The popular votes will go 48.8 percent for Obama, 48.5 percent for Romney, and 2.7 percent for all other candidates combined.
The first saving grace (for a conservative) is that this is obviously a close enough result that Romney can still turn it around. To do it, he'll need to do a better job using smaller "wedge" issues than he is doing. The second saving grace is that my analysis assumes a razor-thin victory in Ohio for Obama. If that tiny margin is reversed, which it could well be, Romney could win, like George W. Bush against Al Gore, even while Obama wins slightly more popular votes. (The civil unrest this could cause, by the way, is rather frightening to contemplate.)
First, here is how I see the states breaking down. In addition to the usual Democratic states of California, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, New Jersey, Maryland, D.C., and Delaware, Obama in this scenario also wins swing (or swing-ish) states Nevada, New Mexico, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and (perhaps by virtue of shenanigans in Cuyahoga County) Ohio.
Romney would win Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, the entire Deep South below Virginia (including Florida), the mountain states of Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia, along with swing states Iowa, Colorado, Wisconsin and New Hampshire.
Under this scenario, the states other than Ohio or the obvious one of Virginia that could most likely make Romney a winner by switching his way are Nevada or New Mexico. Oddly, Connecticut also bears watching, in the same way the Pennsylvania and Michigan do -- although none are likely.
Now, how can Romney pull off the victory anyway? By mobilizing discrete groups of voters who might be unexcited or might wish a pox on both parties, but who will be motivated to turn out (rather than stay home, or go hunting, or whatever) and vote for a candidate who shows commitment to a particular issue stance.
Taking a page from Newt Gingrich's playbook, Romney could easily identify such issues where a clear majority of voters agree with conservatives. Among these might be voter identification (especially using Democratic Rhode Island's voter-ID law as an example of a good, bipartisan approach), the growing stench from the Justice Department on a host of issues beginning with the Fast-and-Furious scandal, or the threat to religious liberty as exemplified not only by the infamous HHS abortifacient mandate but also by the Hosanna-Tabor case and any number of cases of trampled conscience protections that are being fought by the Alliance Defending Freedom or the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. For that matter, it is a mystery why Republican presidential candidates repeatedly fail to make the issue of judges a big deal -- because the majority of Americans agree with conservatives both on the role of judges and on most of the "issues" around which controversial judicial decisions tend to focus.
Romney could also further energize Tea Partiers by promising, especially in targeted mailings, that while he of course thinks states should be free to adopt the Common Core education standards if they so desire, he will absolutely ensure they feel no pressure or incentive from the federal government to do so.
Romney also could turn the tables on Obama by making an issue of Democrats' extremism on abortion, although that carries obvious risks. He certainly should do a far better job making the popular conservative case on energy, by going beyond a mere "let's drill here" message to an explanation of why and how the United States can approach energy independence. (Answers: shale, and natural gas offshore of Virginia and other states that want it.)
Meanwhile, the biggest mystery of all is why Romney has so far made so little an issue of Obamacare. Going on the offensive against its unpopular aspects could really drive voters his way. He should do a series of ads on the individual mandate/tax, on the Independent Payment Advisory Board, and especially on the medical device tax that will hit pacemakers, wheelchairs, insulin pumps, and other technology vital to the lifestyle and/or the very lives of millions of Americans. This could, indeed should, be the biggest "sleeper issue" of the election.
Romney should accompany these anti-Obamacare messages with ads explaining that he and Paul Ryan do have plans to replace Obama's monstrosity -- insurance sales across state lines, tax breaks for health insurance purchases by individuals, even perhaps some small, means-tested subsidies for starting up health savings accounts.
And those are just several examples from a longer list of possibly winning issues. My theory about persuadable voters this year is that they really want to, yes, be persuaded: They want their minds engaged, so they understand how the candidates propose to improve the economy. Think of these voters like a jury, looking not for a scholarly dissertation but nonetheless for a fact-based narrative that convinces them one side's case is better. What Morton Blackwell's Leadership Institute always teaches is true: Good policies are good politics.
This is what Bill Clinton understood when he took the stage at the Democratic National Convention last week. While Clinton used a series of four-fifths truths, shaded in ways that were misleading but that sounded utterly convincing, he absolutely did use a lot of real facts and inductive (faux-) logic to make a powerful case for Obama. Indeed, I think the solid convention "bounce" Obama has enjoyed in recent polls, about which smart conservatives are justly concerned, owes more to Clinton's effective pro-Obama intervention than to any other single cause.
Romney's convention speech, meanwhile, barely made a case on issues at all, relegating them to about a single sentence each on five separate promises that were more aspirational than transactional. Again, he failed to provide, in any way, shape or form, any real details of the "how" of a Romney recovery.
Nobody is suggesting that Romney run a policy-wonk's campaign. He can and should, however, use issues as powerful attractants, providing enough commonsense explanation on each that "swing" voters see the proverbial light bulbs turn on in their heads.
Otherwise, an excruciatingly close Romney loss will likely occur, thus relegating all of us to a new term for a radical president no longer hindered in his aims by the need to be re-elected. Obama's ascendance in Ohio would thus threaten a serious low point for American constitutional government.