There are 36 days left until Election Day, and that means that every day matters. But the next five days matter more than most when it comes to the race’s final outcome.
Here’s why: There are two seminal events in the campaign this week: the first presidential debate on Wednesday night and the release of the September jobs report on Friday morning.
Yes, we know the fact that the general election debates in a presidential race may be less than meets the eye. And, yes, we know that the economy may well be a settled issue for most voters already, a phenomenon expertly documented recently by BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith.
But the simple fact is that, for the 6 to 8 percent of the electorate who remains genuinely undecided, the next five days could set a narrative that will push them to a choice sometime between now and Nov. 6.
Let’s run through three possible scenarios for how the week could play out, and what it might mean for the race.
Scenario No. 1:
Solid Romney debate, bad (under 80,000 jobs created) jobs report
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has beaten back the campaign collapse story over the last few days as poll numbers in places such as Iowa suggest what most smart political types knew all along: the country is too divided for President Barack Obama to run away with the election. If Romney looks up to the job Wednesday night and then the jobs report produces less-than-expected in terms of job creation, by this time next week the “Romney momentum” storyline will be in full swing.
Scenario No. 2: Obama unscathed in debate, good (150,000 jobs created) jobs report
The last three weeks or so have been the best of Obama’s presidential campaign to date (nice timing if you are a Democrat). If Obama is seen to have survived Wednesday’s debate without taking any direct hits from Romney and the jobs report produces some good-ish news, it would affirm the idea that the incumbent’s case for a second term is growing stronger as the election approaches. Remember that much of the progress Obama has made nationally and in swing states in recent weeks is due to a renewed optimism about the economy and the direction of the country; if Obama has a strong jobs report to point to for the final month of the campaign, it will only make that argument more powerful to undecided voters.
Scenario No. 3: Debate draw, mediocre (100,000 jobs created) jobs report
Combine a debate that decides nothing with a jobs report that tells us nothing (really) about the direction of the economy, and this week will amount to a push. That will set the stage for the second and third debates later this month to potentially make more of a difference. One thought on a mediocre jobs report: The growing optimism we mentioned above doesn’t seem to be based on any particular economic indicator, since all of the indicators seem to be pointing in different directions. That suggests that no new news is good news for Obama on the economic front. If the jobs report produces headlines that point to a lack of clarity in the jobs picture, that sort of status quo could well allow the incumbent to keep the perception of momentum — or at least lurching progress — he has built over the past few weeks.
While the Romney campaign was lowering expectations for its first debate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in two separate Sunday show appearances, raised them — a lot.
Christie, one of Romney’s top surrogates and the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention, said Wednesday’s debate is a chance to “restart” the campaign.
“I have absolute confidence that when we get to Thursday morning, George, all of you are going to be shaking your head saying it’s a brand new race with 33 days to go,” Christie said on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”
At the same time, Romney’s vice presidential nominee was playing down the debate’s importance.
“I don’t think one event is going to make or break this campaign,” Ryan said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Christie’s comments aside, Romney’s campaign has worked hard to lower expectations, as has Obama’s campaign. If Romney doesn’t perform well now, Democrats can point to Christie’s comments as proof that the campaign was planning on a game-changing performance.