DENVER — Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will each spend this week trying to convince fickle independents, lukewarm supporters, and a noisy media that he is already winning — in the hopes of turning the perception of victory into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The candidates returned to the campaign trail after Monday’s debate with overweening public confidence projected in rousing speeches, in background briefings, and in the partisan twitter wars. But these arguments are no longer mere spin-cycle jousts conducted for the entertainment of bored cable news viewers: In the final two weeks of the campaign, that narrative of victory is a crucial part of the sweaty work of field organizing, as voters and activists— both campaigns believe —are far more likely to do their part for someone they see as a winner.
Mitt Romney himself, for the first time in his long campaign, laid claim to the Big Mo, telling audiences in Colorado and Nevada that it was time to jump on his bandwagon.
"These debates have supercharged our campaign," Romney said Tuesday afternoon in Henderson, Nev. "There’s no question about it, we’re seeing more and more enthusiasm, more and more support."
(Romney’s aides have, in the past, been less shy about projecting that kind of confidence: “I think if the election were held tomorrow we’d win and win pretty easily,” senior adviser Stuart Stevens told reporters in August, with Romney trailing badly in public polls.)
Aides to President Barack Obama, too, have spent the better part of a week shouting down the broad sense in the press that Romney is gaining ground.
“We’re winning in Ohio, and we’re going to win this election,” said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina Monday night after the final debate.
“We always knew this would get close, but we’re still ahead, and we’re going to win,” added senior adviser David Plouffe in the spin room, repeating a version of that sentence roughly every three minutes to reporters huddling around him.
In private — or at least in the relative privacy of the campaign’s emails to its supporters — Obama declared, "this race is very close," on Tuesday in a fundraising pitch.
But Obama’s aides spent Tuesday challenging reporters to prove, through the muddled polling, their perception of a continuing Romney surge, and their allies in the media made the case forcefully.
On Tuesday, in the midst of the dueling bravado, New York’s Jonathan Chait argued that Romney’s touted momentum is a “bluff,” designed to bring in other supporters to frame what is now a house of cards. The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis followed up with an attack on a media more interested, he argued, in a good yarn than in the truth.
The public polls are, in fact, a muddle, with Obama ahead but with recent shifts in Romney’s direction. Both campaigns are straining to persuade the press, and the voters beyond, that the momentum is with them. The urgency stems from the psychology of voters wanting to go with the winner, and perhaps from campaign aides’ own need to urge themselves through the finish line.
“Of course there’s concern in both campaigns — and even some fear — but some people want to vote for a winner,” said a Democratic operative close to the Obama campaign. “This is going to be a close election and you have to simultaneously scare the base into voting against the other guy, and make yourself look like a winner for undecideds."
But for Romney, the confidence is helping with the base and undecideds GOP consultant Curt Anderson told BuzzFeed.
"Prior to the first debate, there were Republicans preparing for the worst and thinking about how they could save their own bacon in an “every man for himself” election," he said. "Now you have an invigorated party that sees victory as very attainable…and that is causing more of a team approach. Our people can now see victory on the horizon"
But as the Republican candidate was spinning hard for his own success, his top adviser dismissed the notion that any such thing was underway.
“Confidence and excitement can only flow from the precinct level up. It can't be manufactured, as the Obama campaign is learning,” said Stevens. “Gov. Romney is reflecting the intensity of a growing support across the country.”