The full impact, if any, of last Tuesday’s second, town-hall style, debate has yet to be fully felt in the polls, although both the seven-day Gallup poll and three-day Rasmussen tracking poll likely picked up some of the debate impact in yesterday’s releases. Of course, yesterday’s Gallup results, which show Romney up by 7%, 52%-45%, created a minor media sensation, with Democrats now charging bias, while Republicans suddenly deciding the polls were a pretty good barometer of where the race is at this moment. But you don’t need to think that Gallup has somehow tipped the scales by, for instance, using a weighting procedure that under samples African-Americans, to still remain skeptical of the result. Instead, there are far less sinister reasons why I suggest not overreacting in either direction to this poll. As I’ve said before, it is the nature of random sampling that there is some uncertainty built into polling estimates. In Gallup’s case that is plus or minus 2%. Second, it is also possible that a poll will be a statistical outlier, through the luck of the sampling draw. That is why I’ve said repeatedly not to rely on a single pollster if there are other, equally reliable poll results available. This morning, for example, Rasmussen’s daily tracker has the race tied at 48% a piece. That poll, by the way, includes two days of post-second debate results. The RCP_election_2012_daily_composite poll sheet also indicates the race is very tight.
Of course, this virtual dead heat comes after almost a month-long period of stability in which Obama seemed to be leading this race by 2.5%-4%. It’s worth considering what has changed to erase Obama’s lead. As I suggested in my latest professor pundits taping with Bert Johnson, I think a chunk of Romney’s new-found polling support comes from women voters who are taking a second look at his candidacy. It is evident from the first two presidential debates that both sides are wooing the women’s vote. But I think it instructive to think how they are doing so. In an earlier post at the Economist’s Democracy in America blog site I blamed the genesis of the “gender gap” dating back to the Reagan presidency on the fact that white men have left the Democratic Party, while women have largely stayed put. They do so not so much because of the Democratic Party’s stance on so-called women’s issues such as abortion rights, workplace discrimination or contraception availability, but because of that Party’s stronger commitment to government programs intended to protect society’s most vulnerable citizens: the old, very young and the sick. The key to Romney’s polling climb, I think, has been partly his ability to convince at least a few more women voters to look at these issues in terms of the economic dimension. That is, how do increase deficits, slow job growth and a generally sluggish economic impact these more vulnerable citizens? It has also been a function of his ability, in a side-by-side comparison with the President, to come across as more moderate than what Obama’s advertising had suggested. That is, at least some women – already willing to look elsewhere for economic reasons – now think that Romney is at least a plausible alternative candidate. To be sure, as this Pew poll indicates, Obama still leads among women, but his margin of support has eroded, and that is contributing to a tightening of the polls.
This poll, of course, was from before the second debate, and the mini-controversy over Romney’s “binder full of women” comment, and his statement that he supported flexible work schedules so women could get home to make dinner for their kids. Both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden immediately jumped on Romney’s binder comments in their campaign speeches next day, and many women’s advocates derided Romney’s comment about women cooking dinner as sexist. But there’s a potential problem with this strategy. If you were watching the focus group reactions on CNN during Romney’s comments on these issues, as I was, you saw that women actually reacted more positively than did men! I suspect this is in part because many working women will tell you that workforce flexibility is actually very important to them, and for precisely the reasons Romney says – a desire to get home in time to be with family. (I make no judgment about what this suggests more generally about the division of labor in many households – that’s a discussion for another day.)
My point is that I’m not sure these comments, as viewed, were as damaging to Romney among women as Obama supporters hope. Of course, as I’ve said before, the impact of any debate is mediated in part by how the media chooses to interpret it. In this case, the media may decide the binder comment hurt Mitt with women voters, in which case it may actually do so. But it did not appear to hurt him among those women in the CNN focus group, for whatever that is worth. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if, despite Romney’s characteristically awkward phrasing, the binder comment may play well with many women – at least those who heard it directly.
This is all a long way of saying that I do not believe the second debate will have nearly the same impact on the polls as did the first, in large part because I think the race has now reached the equilibrium point that the forecast models predicted all along. Of course, it remains possible that Mitt will lose some of his new-found gains among women voters. If so, I’m betting it won’t be a huge drop in support.
But don’t take my word for it. In case you missed the debates, here are the highlights so far (hat tip to Amy Yuen!)