WASHINGTON, Oct. 7, 2012 -- There's a new injury going around in political circles these days: it's called political whiplash.
It's caused by the ever changing -- sometimes violently so -- perceptions of the presidential contest.
This week started with dour predictions about Mitt Romney's chances. "He can't win Ohio and Wisconsin!" "His messaging is a mess!" "Donors are going to abandon him!"
But by Wednesday night -- WHACK -- the views of the punditocracy shifted drastically. "Romney crushed the debate!" "President Obama was missing in action!" "This is a brand new race!!!"
Then came Friday morning's job report. WHAM! "The October surprise!" "Romney's bump goes bust!" "Obama back up, Romney down."
And what about next week's vice presidential debate. Will the race get rear-ended by Paul Ryan? Bumped by Joe Biden?
Fortunately, there is a cure for this. It involves focusing less on the minute by minute movements and more on the fundamentals.
And, at this point, the fundamentals favor Obama.
1) Voters are feeling (somewhat) better about the economy and direction of the country.
BLS Conspiracy theorists take note: Americans were feeling better about the state of the economy and Obama's handling of it before the jobs report came out.
This is not to say that Americans think the economy is rockin'. Or that the president is doing a tremendous job of putting it back on solid footing.But, they don't think the economy is as bad today as it was a year ago. And, a small -- but growing number -- think it's getting better.
On Friday, the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index reported that consumer confidence had climbed for a sixth straight week, the "longest such stretch since early 2006."
The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 44 percent of Americans thought the economy will get better over the next year – the highest percentage since the fall of 2009, and six points better than the fall of 2008.
A year ago, a whopping 77 percent of Americans polled by ABC News/Washington Post said that the country was headed in the wrong direction.
Today, that number has dropped 18 points to 60 percent. So, while a majority of Americans still aren't happy with the way things are going in the country, it is a smaller majority than it was last fall.
Furthermore, the pollster.com trend line shows that since early August there has been a steady increase in the percentage of Americans who think things are headed in the right direction and a steady decrease in the number who see it as off track.
2) Despite frustration with Obama, Romney is not seen as better able to handle the economy.
A majority of voters continue to disapprove of the job Obama is doing on the economy. But, they are less disappointed in him than they used to be. And, they don't see Romney as able to do any better.
The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll showed 47 percent approved and 52 percent disapproved of the job the president was doing on the economy. That is the strongest the president has been on this question since the summer of 2010 and a 10 point improvement since last fall.
Meanwhile, voters' confidence that Romney will do a better job on the economy has dropped significantly between August and September. Back in August, Romney had a seven point lead on the question of who'd do a better job on the economy.
Today, Romney and Obama are tied. Gallup showed a similar trend between August and September.
3) Electoral map is shrinking, not expanding.
Despite earlier predictions by the Romney campaign that they would be competitive in traditionally blue states like Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, they are putting no serious effort into any of them. Moreover, the Paul Ryan pick gave Romney only a short-lived bounce in Wisconsin. The latest polls in the Badger State show Obama with a healthy advantage in the state.
This has left Romney has a very narrow path to 270, and no room for error. If Romney loses Ohio and Wisconsin, he would have no choice but to win almost every single other battleground state to win.
4) Romney's image problem.
Thanks to the efforts of millions of dollars of negative advertising over the summer by Obama and his allies, and little to no effort by Romney to rebut them, Romney entered the fall campaign with more people feeling unfavorably toward him than favorably. Voters see Obama as better able to understand the economic problems of regular people and more in tune with the concerns of the middle class.
5) The Money Gap
Obama's $181 million haul last month is impressive. More important, however, is the fact that his campaign has been smart in how they spend it. As the New York Times reported last week, the Obama team has been able to stretch their dollars further thanks to a sophisticated ad buying strategy. This has meant that even as Republicans (Romney plus the outside independent groups supporting him) have outspent the Democrats (Obama plus his independent group allies) by more than $40 million on TV ads since April, Obama and his allies have run 35,000 more ads. Outside groups have to pay a higher rate for ads than the campaigns do. This means that these groups have to spend a lot more money to get the same number of ads on the air.
Despite Obama's structural advantages, this race is far from over. Economic enthusiasm/anxiety is impacted by more than unemployment statistics or the value of the stock market. Partisanship matters too. Over the course of September, the Gallup consumer confidence found that while both independents and Democrats felt more optimistic about the economy, Republicans felt less so. The Bloomberg Survey found the uptick in confidence this month to be bi-partisan, but they also found that independents felt the "most bleak" about the state of the economy.
Moreover, confidence in Obama's ability to handle the economy can be undermined by politics too. Approval of his handling of the economy ticked up right after the Democratic convention. A poor performance on, say, the debate stage could drive it back down.
Romney can't control the trajectory of the economy. But, he can move perceptions about himself and his abilities to steward this economy.
When looking at polling that will come out over the next week, it's important not to obsess as much about the head to head numbers and to look "under the hood" instead. Has Romney moved ahead of Obama on the issue of who voters trust to do a better job handling the economy? Look also to see if he has improved his favorable ratings and moved the needle on perceptions of him as someone who is looking out for the middle class. After all, it's very hard for Romney to convince Americans to fire the President if they don't think the alternative will be any better.
The battleground state polling is just as important to watch. Even before the debate there were signs that Obama's convention bounce was starting to fade in places like Virginia and Florida. But, in Ohio and Wisconsin, Romney needs to do more get undecided voters -- voters who are already open to the idea of voting against Obama -- to support him. He has to convince those who are currently supporting Obama to switch allegiances. For the next month it's probably best to keep that ibuprofen handy for any pangs of whiplash. But, if you keep your focus on the fundamentals, it'll probably go away on its own.