There are two big factors that will determine the outcome of the presidential election: the economy and demographics.
The economy is weak and doesn't look likely to improve by much, but the makeup of the electorate on the other hand is highly dynamic. It continues a trend underway for years: a rapid rise in the number of people who are not Anglos in both the population and at the polls.
That percentage actually doubled between 1992 and 2008, says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University.
"It went from 13 percent of voters to 26 percent of voters, Abramowitz says, "Without that trend it's very unlikely that Barack Obama would have won the 2008 election."
Obama needs that trend to continue and possibly even accelerate in order to win a second term. That's because the president's share of the white vote is dropping.
Four years ago, President Obama got 43 percent of the white vote. Polls now show him with only about 38 percent. His gender gap advantage with white women has also shrunk, and among whites without a college degree he only gets about a third.
To offset that, Obama not only has to win the minority vote, Abramowitz says he also has to make sure non-white voters make up a bigger share of the overall electorate.
"In 2008, according to the national exit poll, non-whites made up about 26 percent of the voters," he says. "If they can get that up to say 28 percent, then Obama could probably come close – maybe even win – the popular vote while losing the white vote by 20 points."
In this election mobilization matters more than persuasion because there are so few undecided voters, probably less than 10 percent. So both sides are now focusing more on turning out their base.
It is why the president has been targeting Hispanic voters with ads like the one featuring talk show host Cristina Saralegui — known as the Latina Oprah.
The more non-white voters the Obama campaign can turnout, the more white voters he can afford to lose. In key battleground states the reverse is true for Romney, says Matt Barretto with the polling firm Latino Decisions.
"So if you take a Nevada, Latinos could be anywhere as high as 15 percent of the electorate on Election Day or they could be as low as 8 percent," Barretto says. "That is a real challenge for the president ... because he's winning the vote right now. Romney needs to chip away at that, and that's the challenge for Republicans."
As Romney famously told a crowd of donors this spring, the president's big lead with Hispanics, "spells doom for us." In the longer term, he might be right, but this year he's betting he can beat the trend by boosting the white vote in key states.
Alan Abramowitz says the main focus of the Romney campaign has been and will continue to be trying to energize and turn out the conservative white base of the Republican Party.
"[They hope to] generate a high enough margin there to overcome Obama's advantage among non-whites and white liberals," he says.
Romney has the easier turnout task since whites historically turnout to vote in higher numbers than minorities. They are expected to be more than 70 percent of the November electorate even though they're only 63 percent of the population. Romney also has a powerful force working in his favor this year — the underlying fundamentals of a bad economy.
"The analog that most people will look at is 1980, where you had an incumbent that was very much suffering from a weak economy," says Republican demographer John Morgan. "People had made up their minds in the spring time that they were not only willing to look at someone other than President Carter, but they were actually willing to vote against him."
Morgan says the potential situation with President Obama is that the damage is done on the economy, and those voters who have moved away from him are gone.
That's what Republicans are banking on, that the fundamentals of the bad economy keep the president stuck where he is today at below 50 percent approval and less than half of the vote.
Of course no one is suggesting that Obama is as bad off as Jimmy Carter was — with a hostage crisis, stagflation and approval ratings in the 30s — Or that Mitt Romney can repeat Ronald Reagan's performance as a candidate. But Republicans are looking to continued bad economic numbers to finally tip this dead heat election in Romney's direction.
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