Five Factors to Watch From Now Through Election Day — Today’s Must Read

Despite the New York Times well documented bias, reporters like Jeff Zeleny do great work.  Below is his piece co-authored with Jim Rutenberg about the state of the race and what factors may ultimately determine the outcome in November:

The race could also still be influenced by unforeseen events, domestic or foreign, that could shape perceptions of the incumbent president and his challenger. Here are a few things to watch in the 58 days ahead, beginning with the electoral map. The roster of battleground states has not changed much, but one that Republicans had dearly hoped to put in play appears to have broken decisively: Pennsylvania. Mr. Romney spent time and money in the state, which went Democratic in the last five presidential elections, but Republican strategists now say it seems out of reach. Wisconsin, which has 10 electoral votes and is home to Mr. Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan, may offer Mr. Romney the best chance to expand his options. Republicans have not won there since 1984, despite fighting hard in almost every election. Wisconsin was not one of the eight states where the Romney campaign placed its first flight of general election ads late last week, but one party strategist said, “Keep watching.”

Debates and early voting

In a race that has featured little significant movement between the candidates, the three debates this fall are taking on even greater importance. For weeks, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have been preparing for their encounters on Oct. 3 in Denver; Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y.; and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla. With each passing debate, millions of Americans will probably cast their ballot, given the rise of early voting and vote-by-mail in many Western states.

Mr. Romney may be a little further ahead in his preparations. His aides began putting blocks of debate-preparation time into his schedule shortly after he emerged from the primaries in the spring. He started formal practice sessions last week at a remote estate in Vermont, where Senator Rob Portman of Ohio played the role of Mr. Obama. Four years ago, viewership for the debates ranged from 52 million to 63 million people — a much bigger audience than the ones that tuned in to the conventions this year.

Ads and Messages

After spending the spring and summer trying to turn Mr. Romney’s success as a business executive from a positive to a negative, characterizing him as uncaring about the middle class, Mr. Obama’s aides and allies intend to graft their portrayal onto specific policy areas. Having intently studied the 2004 race, when President George W. Bush won re-election after defining Senator Kerry on his terms during the spring and summer, Mr. Obama’s advisers are convinced that the most crucial advertising period of the campaign is already over, and that they accomplished what they had to by introducing Mr. Romney to the nation as a rapacious capitalist.

Mr. Romney’s team is betting that early ad spending is largely wasted, and that a final and furious campaign will move the race in his direction when it most counts, at the end. The campaign’s belief is that continued disappointing economic data will feed its slogan, “Obama Isn’t Working,” and give a new edge to the question Mr. Romney is posing at every opportunity: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Like the Democrats, Republicans say they intend to link their broader economic message to specific policies: cutting spending and reducing the national debt, working to ensure the solvency of Medicare for future generations, cutting expensive regulations and avoiding tax increases. Over the next two months, swing-state residents will see ads on the local issues that matter most to them: foreclosures in Nevada, Medicare in Florida, military spending in North Carolina and Virginia, and, especially from the Republican side, the federal budget deficit just about everywhere.

Third Parties

There is one factor in the campaign that has yet to get much attention but could influence the outcome: third-party candidacies in many states, most notably that of former Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico, the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee. Mr. Johnson, who advocated free markets, fewer wars and the legalization of marijuana during his brief run for the Republican nomination, hardly shows up in polls. But he is on more than three dozen state ballots and trying for more. Advisers to Mr. Johnson said he had the most potential to cut into Mr. Romney’s support in Florida, where Mr. Romney is basically tied with Mr. Obama now, and to have an impact in Nevada, New Hampshire and Arizona. They said he had the most potential to eat into Mr. Obama’s support in New Mexico, Colorado, Iowa, Oregon and Wisconsin. The Republican Party of Virginia also failed in a bid last week to remove former Representative Virgil Goode from the presidential ballot there. He is the nominee of the Constitution Party, and could draw disaffected Tea Party adherents away from the Republican Party.

Money

At the end of July, when the last official figures were available, Mr. Romney and the related Republican Party presidential committees had about $186 million on hand, compared with about $124 million for Mr. Obama and the Democrats. Mr. Obama’s advisers have expressed concerns that the Romney war chest, combined with well-financed Republican super PACs, will swamp them and Priorities USA Action when it comes to advertising. But much of the Obama campaign’s money is going into its sophisticated voter-identification and get-out-the-vote operation, which is fully up and running while Mr. Romney rushes to build his own.

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