In essence, the preening and eye-rolling, the chest-thumping and sarcasm across the tense terrain of this presidential election reflects the difficulty of understanding the dimensions of the 2012 political universe.

It can be said Obama remade the known political universe in 2008 when he boosted turnout in Iowa and most other caucus states and held on to capture the Democratic nomination over Hillary Rodham Clinton. He similarly expanded the universe by boosting his 2008 vote total by nearly 10 million over John Kerry in 2004 (McCain managed to shrink GOP turnout to 59.9 million from Bush the younger’s 2004 total of 62 million).

But even since Obama’s 2008 victory, the universe he created has shrunk. It did so in 2009 in the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia where Obama campaigned but Republicans Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell won. It shrank conspicuously in 2010 when Republicans reversed many of the Democratic congressional gains achieved in 2006 and 2008…

Obama’s team believes it knows the political terrain better than Romney, that its voter contacts, outreach, registration, and mobilization can withstand any partisan tide. This is the core of its preening confidence and certainty. Romney has some data but also – and more importantly – an intuitive sense that American attitudes and temperament are primed for change.

In this, Obama bets on hard-bitten pragmatism and Romney the emotive punch of possibility. Obama the spread-sheet, Romney the romantic. Irony, thy name is campaign 2012.