Most of the discussion about the October 3rd Presidential debate surrounds how well Mitt Romney did against a listless and uninspired Barack Obama. Gallup polling shows that Romney won the debate by the largest margin ever in a Presidential debate. But the real reason Romney won and is back in the race is that he underwent a metamorphosis: President Obama is no longer running against a conservative Republican. Governor Romney has become a pragmatic centrist.
So where does the race stand? Nearly a week out, what was the impact of the debate? PEW, a reputable and fair polling organization, suggests that the debate shifted opinion by twelve points from a 51 – 43 lead for Obama on September 17 to a four point 49 – 45 lead for Romney on October 8th. Never in history has one debate or event shifted opinion so radically.
If the poll is accurate the story line is clear: Mitt Romney used the debate to shed rhetoric that still seemed defined by the themes of the GOP primary in order to run as a moderate Massachusetts Republican. He praised his state’s health care reform, stressed his capacity to work with Democrats, and vowed not to follow through on many of his campaign promises. His across the board tax cut? Well, if it really costs $5 trillion he won’t do it!
Politico reports this make over comes thanks to a revolt by Mitt’s family against the scripted focus on the economy and right wing themes that the campaign had engaged in up until this point. The argument is that Romney’s campaign guru Stuart Stevens failed to accept that his strategy wasn’t working and thus risked an embarrassing defeat. Now Stevens’ role has been reduced and the new Mitt unleashed.
But is PEW accurate? Some on the left decry the fact it “oversampled” Republicans. But that’s the same “skewed” argument the right gave when polls seemed to be “oversampling” Democrats. Party identity is fluid and if people shift support to Romney, they’ll be likely to identify themselves as Republicans. To be sure, even good polling is, on average, outside the margin of error 5% of the time. But Democrats dismiss PEW at their own peril.
PEW may have an aggressive likely voter screen that exaggerates the lead of the candidate with the most enthusiasm. PEW’s 8 point lead for Obama was far greater than the lead other polls showed in mid-September (it was released before the 47% video came out). Perhaps there is a similar exaggeration working in favor of Governor Romney here. Also, PEW did most of its interviews right after the debate, when all polling showed a large bump for Romney — if not the 12 point change PEW registered, at least 5 points. Since then the tracking polls suggest that the bump is receding to one of about 3 points, an argument made by Nate Silver.
Silver’s argument rests in part on how Gallup’s polling showed Obama’s lead jumping from 3 points to 5 yesterday. Yet today Gallup’s tracking poll has Romney up by two points. The five point lead was registered voters rather than likely voters, among likely voters it was tied yesterday. Yet something dramatic could be happening in this race, the debate may have broken it open and shifted the momentum forcefully on the side of Governor Romney. If that momentum is shifting it’s hard to turn things around; the situation for President Obama may be much worse than most analysts believe.
Amy Fried has argued that debates seldom change voter preferences over the long term. There is strong empirical evidence for that position. Yet in an era of social media and a situation where a sitting President seemed completely unprepared for the debate (we know he can do better because he did so in 2008), this could be an exception. The “n” of past debates is small, after all. State polls also show very good news for Romney. States about to be written off like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio appear close again. Romney’s regained leads in North Carolina and Colorado.
This is all wonderful news for Governor Romney and his supporters. And with Andrew Sullivan writing that Obama may have thrown the election away and Michael Tomasky wondering if Obama even wants to keep his job, there is understandable glee in a group had been dourly watching an election slip away. Victory tastes best when snatched from the jaws of defeat! The only bad news for the GOP is that Romney doesn’t seem to have coattails. The Senate still looks to be solidly Democratic, with unexpected strength in what had been thought to be Republican sure things like North Dakota and Arizona.
Yet as demoralized as Obama supporters may be, all is not lost, at least not yet. He won September and got a $180 million haul assuring no shortage of money in the final weeks of the campaign. There are also more debates and numerous opportunities for Obama to bounce back. President George W. Bush performed poorly in his first debate against John Kerry but still won. Team Obama believed that most voters had made their minds up already and Romney had no feasible path to the Presidency. Better to have that misconception demolished five weeks before an election rather than five days out.
This should bring more focus and urgency to the Obama campaign. Romney has changed the narrative but hasn’t made the sale. If Obama can take this hit and recover, he could rebuild a lead. Obama’s job approval numbers are better too – now at or above 50%. Gallup gave him 53% approval today, as high as just before the debate. With unemployment dipping and campaign coffers full, the President still has much going his way.
Still, Obama now faces a new Mitt Romney – a centrist who eschews the rhetoric of the right and is willing to ditch positions that hurt his chances. Expect him to call for immigration reform and embrace a clear moderate agenda. Romney has shaken the edge-a-sketch and it seems to have worked.
The President’s campaign has been premised on opposing a conservative Republican and suddenly Romney’s a Massachusetts moderate again. That metamorphosis makes Obama’s job tougher — it’s harder to run against a pragmatic centrist — but has dangers for Romney. The idea he has no core and will say anything to win still haunts him. But if the reaction to the debate Wednesday is to be believed, most voters are willing to take him on his word. In this case it appears that one Presidential debate may have turned the entire race around.
UPDATE: There has been some confusion with this post. An earlier draft had me amazed at a seven point one day change in Gallup’s Tracking poll from Obama + 5 to Romney + 2. I then realized that it was due to the former being registered voters and the latter likely voters. I’ve amended my post and softened my next statement from saying that the race has had a dramatic shift to it may be having a dramatic shift. This confusion comes from Gallup’s shift on reporting likely voters: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/09/gallup-poll-likely-voters_n_1950951.html)
(Check out my poll updates page: ‘2012 polls updated constantly‘)