Barring an unforeseen “black swan” event, by 8:30 A.M. on Friday, October 5th, we should know who is going to be elected President in November. I know, polls right now show the President winning an almost identical victory as he did four years ago, the long knives are already out for the hapless Romney campaign and even journalists whose livelihood depends, in part, in the illusion of a competitive race (after all, what would they fill the cable airwaves with otherwise? Prison documentaries?), are admitting that the President is well ahead, but if you were to conduct a thought experiment on how the GOP could get back in the race for President, what would it look like?
Simple. Start with Wednesday, October 3rd in Denver, Colorado. The first Presidential debate is the last opportunity for the vaunted “reset” that Romney’s team has claimed would happen at various points during the race. The topic is domestic policy and the reporting indicates that Mitt has studied for this harder than the prospectus on any LBO he and his cronies at Bain ever negotiated. While it is impossible to know which Romney will show up in Denver, the one that toggles wildly to the extreme right or the one who realizes that secretly recorded video of him demeaning 47 percent of our country is not a smart political strategy, we do know the former Governor is not afraid to get his hands dirty in verbal combat. If you go back to the primary debates, he pummeled his opponents with falsehood and inaccuracy uttered through that polished veneer of businessman sobriety that was happily regurgitated, largely context-free, by the chattering class. Admittedly, the stakes are a bit higher now, and it is possible that reporters will call misstatements for what they are – lies – but, as a general matter, reporters expect candidates to stick up for themselves and call that stuff out. Today, journalists are far more comfortable in the role of analyst than referee.
On the other hand, a debate “win” by the President will reinforce the narrative that is quickly forming that this race is all over but the shouting. That is why the following day, Thursday, October 4th, is so critical. The debate ends at 10:30 P.M. and while there will be some wrap up on cable and network TV and the Internet will be ablaze on both sides of the partisan divide, it is that following morning when conventional wisdom will begin to set in. Journalists will have the overnight to digest the debate, newspaper writers and columnists will have their work read by many Americans who saw all, some or none of the contest and people like me will try to sway, to the extent our voices can, public opinion.
Thursday will be an all-day buffet of dissecting what happened the night before and in some ways, will be even more important than the debate itself. A perceived Romney “win” may not be seen in anything but “flash” polling, but to the extent it stymies talk of an inevitable loss, it will be quite helpful, allowing him to slingshot into the weekend, the following two debates (VP debate on 10/11 and second POTUS debate on 10/16) and perhaps, raise Republican hopes for a comeback. A “draw” may also be helpful if only because there is some inchoate benefit to being seen as on par with the President of the United States. An Obama “win” will have the fat lady humming some bars before she sings.
Friday is the closing part of this three-act play. At 8:30 A.M. the Department of Labor will release the monthly jobs report and unemployment rate. Recent data have been equivocal – net job growth is occurring but the unemployment rate has not moved much. The employment picture has been muddled enough that it offers ammunition to both sides but has not had a significant impact on either the news cycle or the overall state of the race. Based on recent months’ data, there are three possible scenarios: (1) tepid (50K-100K) net job growth that moves the unemployment needle a tenth of a percent or two in either direction but is a net neutral in the campaign narrative; (2) stronger (100K-200K) net job growth that will be favorable to Obama, regardless of what the underlying unemployment number is; or (3) weak/no (-50K-+50K) job growth that Romney will use to show the economy is slowing.
If job growth is tepid, it will slightly blunt whatever momentum Obama gains from the debate or give a little extra wind to a Romney triumph. Strong job growth combined with an Obama debate win would be the last nail in Romney’s campaign coffin or an immediate narrative change if the Governor somehow comes out on top in Denver. Poor or negative job growth is the best outcome Romney could hope for as it would either add additional fuel to a good debate performance or quickly snuff out an Obama victory.
In other words, this shit matters. The fallout in the days afterward will be telling. GOP ad dollars moving out of states they acknowledge as unwinnable or toward Congressional candidates in hopes of protecting their House majority would have a massive deflating impact on the Romney camp. On the other hand, a shot in the arm debate performance and weak job numbers may not only rally the base but also move some swing state polls closer to parity, re-setting the race as a 4 week sprint to the finish. But know this, these three days in October will be Romney’s last chance to meaningfully change the storyline that is forming of his inevitable defeat. He may have two more bites at the debate apple, but by then, early voting will be underway, and, if he does poorly in the first debate, firm opinions will be cemented in place. Romney cannot rely on the jobs report coming out the Friday before the election to change things because whatever the state of the economic recovery, one thing that will not happen is a monthly loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, which might be the only hope Romney would have at that point of pulling off a huge upset. In short, at 8:30 next Friday morning, we’ll know if Democrats can book their Inaugural reservations or whether the Republicans can make a fight out of what right now looks like another embarrassing loss.
 If you’re scoring at home, the first reset was supposed to happen when he announced his running mate (that fizzled); then, it was going to be the Republican National Convention (“talk to the empty chair”). Now, we’re told it is the Presidential debates.
 Nothing like pinning your hopes on the suffering of “you people” to neatly close the loop on your campaign strategy!