US election round-up: Monday October 22

Welcome to the election news round-up on the morning before the third and final presidential debate, which will focus on foreign policy.

While investors may increasingly focus on the threat of the so-called fiscal cliff facing whoever wins on November 6, this potential catastrophe for the US economy will remain off the agenda as Washington DC remains obsessed with the minutiae of an incredibly tight race.

RealClearPolitics.com, whose running average poll shows President Barack Obama edging slightly ahead overall, is boring down to county level in state polls. This is a traditional US election activity at this time, although normally focusing on a particularly county that is deemed emblematic of the voter groups who hold the key to the White House.

But this year, in an eerie echo of the 2000 election, pollsters are looking for counties within swing states that may actually tip the balance towards Mr Obama or his challenger, Mitt Romney.

The race may come down to an even narrower slice of the electorate than the nine most contested states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. The outcome probably will depend on what happens in the 106 counties that Republican George W. Bush won in 2004 and that voted Democrat Obama in 2008, according to an Associated Press analysis.

The AP reviewed the vote returns in those nine states during the 2000, 2004 and 2008 elections to identify the counties that have swung between the parties and were most likely to do it again on Nov. 6.

In the New Yorker, John Cassidy has a crumb of comfort for the president’s supporters.

Obviously, these are disturbing figures for Obama supporters. But before you climb back onto that ledge you were perched on before Tuesday’s debate, consider the broader picture, which is considerably more favorable to the President. Taking account of all the polls, rather than just one, the national race appears to be a virtual tie. At the state level, despite Romney making strong gains in some places over the past couple of weeks, Obama’s firewall in the electoral college is holding—for now, anyway.

The Washington Post says:

There’s not much that the campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree upon these days, except for this: The 2012 presidential election remains to be won or lost in the next 16 days because neither side has been able to close the deal with voters.

Close to three-quarters of a billion dollars in advertising — more than 80 percent of it negative — has flooded the airwaves of the battleground states. Legions of volunteers have spent tens of thousands of hours making phone calls and knocking on doors. There have been two conventions and three debates.

And yet, as the presidential race heads into this final stretch, it is ending up pretty much where it started — exceedingly tight.

But as usual, reading the entrails of a slew of polls takes up much space in Monday morning’s papers. The summary in RCP’s polling shows wide disparities, from Mr Romney with a 7 percentage point lead, to the president with a 6-point advantage. The results suggest that polling companies are having more difficulty than usual in gauging the public mood, or the public is finding it tougher than normal to makes its choice.

In the FiveThirtyEight blog on the New York Times website, Nate Silver points out a strong gender split.

If only women voted, President Obama would be on track for a landslide re-election, equaling or exceeding his margin of victory over John McCain in 2008. Mr. Obama would be an overwhelming favorite in Ohio, Florida, Virginia and most every other place that is conventionally considered a swing state. The only question would be whether he could forge ahead into traditionally red states, like Georgia, Montana and Arizona.

If only men voted, Mr. Obama would be biding his time until a crushing defeat at the hands of Mitt Romney, who might win by a similar margin to the one Ronald Reagan realized over Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Overall, anything, such as the final debate, that could produce a significant change in poll figures may mark the final phase of the election. Here, according to RealClearPolitics.com‘s Scott Conroy, Mr Romney may have a problem:

The parameters of the third and final presidential debate on Monday, therefore, pose a challenge for the Republican nominee: How does he make a strong final pitch to tens of millions of TV viewers when debating foreign policy rather than domestic issues?

Even as Romney has made inroads convincing undecided voters of his abilities as an economic steward, he is running against a president whose approval rating on foreign policy remains high. What’s more, Romney has twice missed recent opportunities seemingly tailor-made to cut into the incumbent’s advantage on this front.

The Wall Street Journal adds:

The candidates are certain to trade jabs over China that experts say are unlikely to amount to big policy differences. Mr. Obama has highlighted his trade cases against China at the World Trade Organization, while Mr. Romney has maintained throughout his campaign that he would label China a “currency manipulator.”

Obama supporters have said such a step would represent the “nuclear option,” threatening a trade war with China.

But experts say announcing a label would likely force little beyond more talks with the country.