Yes, Mitt Romney has not had the best of Septembers. From Clint Eastwood’s empty chair to the private fund-raiser remarks that failed to remain private, it’s clear that the Republican nominee would prefer to forget the recent past and press on.
What’s unclear is whether these moments spell the end of Romney’s challenge. President Obama’s re-election looks more likely today than it did, say, three months ago, and the political class has come very close to declaring Romney’s bid over.
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No incumbent president, however, can take much comfort from the numbers that measure Americans’ attitudes about the general state of the nation. By a 54–42% margin, Americans believe the economy is getting worse, not better. The Real Clear Politics average of right track/wrong track polling shows that Americans think we’re on the wrong track by a margin of 55.3-38.5. And President Obama’s approval rating is at about 50% — almost a mathematical manifestation of an American ambivalence about the president and the future.
I think, then, that what little evidence there is suggests the race will remain close even to the end. Despite the technology, despite the microtargeting, despite everything, there is still truth in Theodore H. White’s observation that elections are decided privately: Voting, White wrote of Election Day 1960, “is invisible, for it is the essence of the act that as it happens it is a mystery in which millions of people each fit one fragment of a total secret together, none of them knowing the shape of the whole.”
Though Romney has failed to provide much more than an “I’m not Obama” argument for himself—a message that is not resonating in the way Boston must have thought it would — the challenger is still operating in an anti-incumbent environment. According to Gallup, Romney’s “47%” comments will make no difference in the decisions of a majority of independent voters (53%). In addition, Gallup has found that “Registered voters in key 2012 election swing states remain closely divided in their presidential vote preferences, with 48% supporting President Barack Obama and 46% Mitt Romney. Other than a nine-point lead for Obama in March, the two candidates have been essentially tied in the swing states throughout the campaign.” Another key finding: “Twenty-two percent of swing-state voters are either undecided (5%) or say there is at least a slight chance (17%) they may change their vote preference between now and the election, underscoring the competitiveness of the election and the uncertainty about its ultimate outcome.”
Americans are unhappy, nervous, edgy. Even given Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate, such broad discontent is likely to make for a long election night for all of us.
MORE: Read TIME’s cover story, “The Mind of Mitt.”