Sandy Freezes Both Presidential Campaigns In Place

We're entering a week-long stretch that even in a more predictable election year would have been consumed by coverage of the final leg of the presidential race.

But as the sprint to the finish begins, it's the massive hurricane bearing down on the East Coast, rather than the candidates' closing arguments to voters, that is going to suck all the oxygen out of the news cycle.

The storm essentially freezes the campaigns -- and the race itself -- in place.

WHERE THE RACE STANDS: ABC News' Political Director Amy Walter notes that it's as tight and as unpredictable as we have seen in many, many years. ABC's pollster Gary Langer notes that this race has been the closest by some measures in pre-election polls dating back to 1960, or even to the early days of polling in 1936.

The latest ABC News-Washington Post poll finds the race a statistical dead heat with Romney at 49 percent to Obama's 48 percent. On the issues, the race is also deadlocked. Romney has a small lead (50 percent to 45 percent) on who would best handle the economy while Obama has an equally narrow lead on the issue of who better understands people's economic problems (49 percent to 45 percent).

At the same time, both sides boast that they have eschewed national polling and instead are watching the battleground states. And where the race stands in battleground states is also a point of contention between the campaigns. Democrats point to public polling showing leads in key states like Ohio and Virginia, while Republicans argue that their private polling shows a dead heat.

THE FUNDAMENTALS: So, are we headed for a historic popular vote, Electoral College split? Or are we looking too closely at the trees (state by state data) and missing the forest (the underlying fundamentals)?

First, Romney's performance in the Denver debate helped wipe away the caricature that millions of dollars in attack ads had created. Lots of undecided and uncommitted voters were unhappy with President Obama but were never given a reason to support Romney. After Denver, they finally had that reason.

Second, even as voters believe that the economy or the country may be getting better, they see Romney as just as capable -- or more capable -- of dealing with it.

Most important, while we all hate the cliché of "it's all about turnout," assumptions about the makeup of the electorate are at the heart of why each side -- and each poll -- shows a very different contest.

In the ABC News-Washington Post poll, as well as some other state polling where we've been able to look at cross-tabs, we find Romney running very strong with independents. However, these independents aren't the same ones we saw in 2008 or 2010. Many, if not the majority, are disillusioned Republicans who are uncomfortable taking the GOP label, but are conservative at heart.

What does this mean? Romney can win the independent vote and still lose the election, if Obama is able to really juice up the Democratic base vote.

THE MATH: The party I.D. breakdown in the ABC News-Washington Post poll is 35 percent Democrat, 28 percent Republican and 34 percent independent. If that holds, Romney can win if he holds onto at least 95 percent of Republicans and takes more than 55 percent of the independent vote (he's taking 55 percent now). Obama wins if he captures 95 percent of Democrats and loses independents by single digits.

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