Depending on which poll you believe, Obama is either up by 3, 7 or 9 points, or down by 1, 3 or 5.
Or none of the above.
Figuring out who's going to be on first in November (which is the only time that counts) is not something you can do just by looking at a photograph of where people are today (which is what a poll does). You also have to look at the calendar and the dynamics.
The economy seems to be in the midst of an uneven recovery. Things are better than they were but not good enough. Some months it seems like we're doing much better. Some months it feels like anything but a recovery. If this were a steady uphill climb, none of the polls would show Obama behind. If people were really feeling hopeless, none of the polls would show Obama ahead.
But as a betting woman, I'm betting on Obama. And while I'm never confident (you should have known my mother, whose first words on every call were "what's wrong"), I'd be a lot more nervous if I were sitting in Mitt Romney's camp.
Why? Because Romney just wrapped up the nomination. With the exception of Ron Paul, all the guys and gals who've been trashing him for the past year are now singing his praises. No one's running negative ads about multiple-choice Mitt. He isn't fighting for his political life every Tuesday. The donors who missed the first train are jumping on and trying to make up for it, and the ones who got on early are strutting and digging in a little deeper. Commentators aren't out there wondering why he can't wrap this thing up even though he's the only guy on the stage who could credibly debate Obama, speculating about brokered conventions and the rest.
You get two sure bumps when you're running for president. The first is when you wrap up the nomination. Romney — at long last — is a winner. Everybody loves a winner. But he's running behind in at least half of the polls out there, and the blue line continues to float above the red one in the averages.
Romney will get his second bump at the Republican convention. But it remains to be seen just how smooth and successful that convention will be. I will never forget going to the 1992 Republican convention, working for a network, expecting to spend my week discussing Bill Clinton's record on taxes and spending in Arkansas, and instead watching in amazement as grassroots Republican conservatives turned the convention into what might now be called a tea party rally. It was wild. Could they really be fighting about whether Abraham Lincoln deserved to be in the platform or whether his reference to the "better angels" was anti-Christian? Was that Ronald Reagan trying to convince an unruly convention to be more tolerant? Was the Pope a Democrat?
You can bet the bank on this: The Democratic Convention will be a celebration of all things Obama. Nothing will actually happen, of course, but it will be four days of tears and cheers and the best television the party that is loaded to the gills with the best people in television can produce. No one will say a word, not a word, from the podium without the approval of Team Obama. The president will get as big a bump as the economy will allow. If it's a good month, economically speaking, it will be a very good bump.
What the Republican Convention will be like is another matter. Romney will have to give good speaking spots to all his major opponents. They will say what they want to say. There will be talk about whomever he picks as vice president, and it will not necessarily be favorable. If he doesn't choose a hard-core conservative, hard-core conservatives on the convention floor will complain. If he does go with a hard-core conservative, the convention-goers will respond better than the swing voters. There may well be a platform fight or two — or at least some dissension or questioning of whether Romney can live with his own platform. It will be much more interesting for those of us who talk on television, but it's likely to produce a smaller bump for just that reason.
This is Romney's first big bump, in a very so-so economic month (OK, worse than so-so), and he's not running ahead. The best he can sell is a close race, which suggests that it might not actually be close. If Romney's going to win in November, he should be ahead right now. And he isn't.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.