The United States presidential election heads into the home stretch, with Barack Obama holding a three-point lead in the national polls and a somewhat larger edge in many of the key swing states. A couple of months ago, this wouldn't have been overly worrisome for the Republican challenger. But, with a month left until November 6, Mitt Romney's most plausible paths to victory are looking arduous.
The larger structural problem for Romney is that there just aren't that many undecided voters remaining. Pundits love to talk about the vast chunk of self-described independents in the American electorate.
Technically, it's true. A July Pew poll found that 38 per cent of voters don't identify as Democrats or Republicans.
But this framing obscures a deeper truth. Most of these people are ''closet partisans'' who will vote the party line the vast majority of the time. As such, by this point in the contest only 6 to 7 per cent of likely voters remain undecided. It's harder to move the polls when such a high percentage of people have already made up their minds.
Romney can still turn things around. But these opportunities are something of a long shot. And voter entrenchment is only part of the explanation.
Romney did take the first step in rehabilitating his image with a strong debate performance this week. He appeared composed and confident while Obama's performance felt uninspired and overly cautious. It was a much needed boost for Romney and turned attention from the series of recent gaffes that have upset his campaign. But debates rarely move the polls by more than a couple of points. And even this bounce often recedes quickly. It is certainly exciting to watch the two candidates square off face to face. But the smart money says it won't dramatically reshape the race.
Campaign funding is also decreasingly likely to be a game changer for Team Romney. In the spring and early summer the Obama campaign hammered the presumptive Republican nominee with negative ads while he was still preoccupied with the primaries. Down the stretch though it looked as if Romney would have the monetary advantage. Republicans were out-raising the Democrats and hoped to blanket the airwaves in the weeks before the election.
But the recently released August fund-raising reports tell a different story. Obama and the Democratic national committee narrowly out-raised Romney and the Republic national committee ($US114 million to $US111.6 million). There's also talk that some of the outside conservative groups that were expected to invest heavily in pro-Romney advertising may decide their money is better spent on races lower down the ticket.
The complex interplay between campaigns, party committees, and outside political action committees makes it difficult to sort out exactly who's winning the fund-raising war. But, it appears neither side will have a big spending advantage. And when you're trailing in the polls a draw isn't good enough.
Finally, there's always the possibility of an unexpected story shaking up the race.
Inevitably, there will some gaffe or news story that temporarily dominates the news cycle. But while the media obsesses over these incidents they generally matter much less to the voters.
Of course, a significant development could affect the race. Most potentially damaging for Obama would be an escalation in the euro zone crisis that sends shockwaves through global markets. But right now, such a worst case scenario looks unlikely to take place before November.
Further unrest in the Middle East is also a possibility. But voters have made clear that the economy is their top priority and a lot of ''October surprises'' could rally Americans around their President as opposed to pushing them towards the challenger.
In any case, many of these issues will create headaches for the next president but won't end up deciding the election.
It's premature to say the election is over. But so far we haven't seen indications that Romney is capable of generating the type of sustained positive momentum that it would take to catch Obama.
Barring something unforeseen, the most plausible path to victory for the Republican nominee would be to hope that his strong first debate and positive press coverage tighten the race enough for him to win a closely fought low-turnout election. It's not impossible. But, given the vulnerabilities of the incumbent, Republicans expected to be in a much stronger position at this point in the campaign.
Luke Freedman is a US election analyst and runs the Election Watch 2012 page for the US studies centre at Sydney University.