Before the first presidential debate, this column repeatedly pointed out that Mitt Romney needed something to happen—an event or development that would change the trajectory of this race—or he would lose. As Jay Leno remarked, the only people who thought President Obama won the debate were the NFL replacement referees. Unquestionably, the Denver debate changed the course of the race enormously. For Romney, it was necessary, but we will have to see if it is sufficient to put him over the finish line first.
That debate was the first of what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might have called “known unknowns,” meaning potentially significant events that could alter the landscape. These include the three presidential debates and the vice presidential debate, and two unemployment reports, the one that came out last week and the one on Nov. 2. That, of course, leaves the possibility of “unknown unknowns” shaking things up.
Some conflicting forces are certainly at work. For almost four years, the economy has been a millstone around Obama’s neck. As voters hear about the stock market nearing five-year highs and the resurrection of the housing sector, the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence is at a seven-month high while the University of Michigan’s national Index of Consumer Sentiment is at a four-month peak. Polls show that right direction is up, wrong track is down, and the public perceives, correctly or not, that the economy is improving. Although in my mind and those of many economists, it’s one step forward and one back, in the minds of voters that millstone around the president’s neck is at least getting a little lighter.
Looking only at polls using live interviewers calling respondents with landlines as well as those with cell phones, the race has become competitive once again. Romney now leads Obama by 4 points, 49 percent to 45 percent, among likely voters in the Pew Research Center’s postdebate polling; he had trailed the president by 8 points last month.
In the daily Gallup tracking, in the three days leading up to the debate, Obama had a 5-point edge among all registered voters, 50 percent to 45 percent. In the three days immediately after the debate, Obama dropped 3 points, to 47 percent, while Romney gained 2 points, to 47 percent, making the race even. But that was among all registered voters. Gallup has now switched to releasing both likely- and registered-voter numbers in its seven-day weekly averages. Through Tuesday night, Romney and Obama were polling even among likely voters, 48 percent to 48 percent, down from the 2-point lead that Romney had over Obama the previous day, while among registered voters, Obama has a 5-point lead, up from the 3-point edge he had the day before. The numbers of interviews through Tuesday night would have included one night of polling on the actual night of the debate, with the remaining six days’ data collected after the debate. Most of the interviews were conducted after the Labor Department’s report on Oct. 5, which showed unemployment for September dropping below 8 percent, to 7.8 percent.
There is no question that the debate was a game changer; the questions we still don’t have the answers to are whether it changed the game enough and whether there will be more game changers benefiting either candidate.
A postdebate Ohio survey for CNN put Obama ahead in that state by 4 points among likely voters, 51 percent to 47 percent. Before the debate, the incumbent had been leading by 5 to 8 points in private polling, so the debate would appear to have had some impact but possibly not enough. Given how bad both Michigan and Pennsylvania look for Romney, he desperately needs a breakthrough in Ohio; for a Republican to win the White House without Ohio (it’s never been done), Michigan, or Pennsylvania would be the equivalent of drawing a royal flush in poker.
A WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll showed that the swing state had narrowed from a 15-point spread for Obama, 52 percent to 37 percent last month, to 6 points, 47 percent to 41 percent, postdebate. Few pros on either side gave the slightest credence to Obama having a 15-point lead before; it’s difficult to take seriously the suggestion that the president’s lead actually dropped 11 points. My guess is that last month’s WMUR poll was an outlier; that Obama’s lead was probably in the high single digits then; and that the 6-point figure now is probably right, and maybe even a point or two high. A Selzer & Company poll (the same firm also does The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg News surveys) for the University of Denver shows likely Colorado voters giving Obama a 4-point postdebate edge, 47 percent to 43 percent, perhaps a little closer than before but not a collapse.
The problem with state polls is that most are in the extraterrestrial category; robo-polls are often all over the map. Aficionados would be well advised to focus on state-level polling offered by NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist University; CBS/New York Times/Quinnipiac University; and by ABC, CNN, Fox News, and other brand names that specifically use live interviewers calling voters with landlines as well as the 30 to 40 percent of voters (mostly young people and minorities) who have only cell phones. Although poll aggregators have a good technique in averaging data, be advised that a lot of dubious information goes into those averages; it’s wiser to focus on the brand names with the more traditional (and very costly) methodology.
Obama’s challenge is to recalibrate his strategy for the next debate. He must be more aggressive, but going too far risks not coming across as presidential. It is a very fine line that he will have to walk.
This column appeared in the print edition of National Journal under the headline "Obama’s Fine Line."
This article appears in the October 13, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.