Ten Days And Counting: Where The Race Stands

My post today examining the State of the Race is up at the Economist’s Democracy in America website, but I will try to amplify my remarks in a post at this site later today.  In particular, I’ll try to reconcile the state-level polling which suggests Obama retains a slight Electoral College lead with the national polls that indicate Romney has been gaining ground.

Meanwhile, Bert Johnson and I have our last pre-election “Professor Pundits” taping up as well.

Also, if you are in the Middlebury area, I’ll be giving  my Election Forecast on Monday, Oct. 29th, at 7 p.m. (Details here.)

More at this site later today…..

Live Blogging The Third Presidential Debate

8:40 Welcome all to another installment of Live Blogging The Presidential Debate!   I hope you can join in- we set a record for participation and visits on this blog during the last debate, and I hope we can break it tonight.  And this gives me an opportunity to remind viewers that if they want to get on the distribution list for the regular posts here, just shoot me an email at dickinso@middlebury.edu  And tonight, I promise (Anna are you listening?) that we will be employing the new live blogging software so – in theory – you don’t need to refresh your screen to catch the latest comments.

Yes, Jim Fallows, Debates Do Matter (But Not As Much As You May Think)

In the aftermath of the first presidential debate, as swing state polls began to converge with the national tracking polls, former Carter speechwriter and Atlantic magazine correspondent James Fallows tweeted, “Maybe acads will stop saying debates never matter MT @ppppolls Obama down 6 overall, -6 MT, -5 NV, -5 WI, -4 MA, -2 VA vs pre-debate” .  He followed up on this theme in an interview on NPR in which he argued that debates do, in fact, matter.

Let me be clear: no political scientist that I know of believes that “debates don’t matter” (although I don’t doubt that a cursory or short-hand reading of some of their comments may lead one to believe this.)  Instead, what they argue is that the persuasive impact of debates is small, and therefore debates themselves are rarely consequential in terms of independently altering the outcome of an election.  But this is different from saying they don’t matter.  In fact, debates do matter.  I have argued that the first presidential debate served as a focusing event, allowing many voters to make a side-by-side comparison of the two candidates for the first time.   In so doing, a small number of viewers may have been persuaded that Mitt Romney is not nearly as extreme as he was being portrayed by the Obama campaign, and that given the economic fundamentals driving this campaign, they might take a chance on the challenger.  In short, the debate accelerated a process that was already underway, in which polls, particularly at the state level, moved closer into alignment with what the fundamentals driving the vote dictated.

But notice that I said a small number of viewers.  For all the talk about what a disaster the first debate was for Obama, the impact on his polling support was not very large. Middlebury College student Anna Esten, building on research by political scientist Tom Holbrook regarding the impact of previous debates, calculates that Obama lost 2.7% support nationally after the first debate. (She based this on a comparison of the average of national polls in the field in the week before the debate with the average of polls in the week after.) As you can see in the chart below, which incorporates Holbrook’s data, Obama’s 2.7% drop is relatively large impact for a first debate – about .5% larger than the second biggest – but not overwhelmingly so.

Incumbent Party Percent of Two-Party Vote During Debate Periods, 1988 to 2008
Debate Pre-Debate Post-Debate Bump Total Change During Debate Period



















































































Moreover there is some evidence that the second debate, which some Obama supporters claim is his best debate performance ever!, may have at least arrested Obama’s polling decline, and may even have given him a small polling boost. This is a reminder that there is one more debate to go, this one tomorrow night dealing with foreign policy.   So we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion regarding the impact of the debates this year quite yet.  Fallows may be tweeting a different tune come next week.  (“My bad – acads right again.”  Ok, maybe not.)

For a variety of reasons, however, I would not expect tomorrow’s debate to have nearly the impact of the first presidential debate, or even the second one, for that matter.  First, and I don’t want to make too much of this given the small “n”, the average impact of the four third debates dating back to 1992 on the incumbent party’s polls is a miniscule -.10.  That compares to -1.19 for the first debate, and -.24 for the second.   Second, tomorrow’s debate centers on foreign policy. This is a topic much in the news of late due to the controversy over the killing of a U.S. diplomat and his security team in Benghazi, and more recently the reports  – denied by the White House – that Iran has agreed to bilateral talks with the U.S. regarding its nuclear program.   Nonetheless, most polls indicate that voters’ concerns over the economy far outweigh their interest in foreign policy questions.   Finally, we have had two relatively widely viewed debates so far, with the audience for the second, at an estimated 65.6 million viewers, only slightly smaller than the 67 million who tuned into the first debate.  (This does not count the millions more who viewed the debates through other means, such as computers and tablets.)  I expect that the audience for tomorrow’s debate will be smaller than that for the first debate – and perhaps even less than the second, since it will be occurring opposite Monday night football.  And there likely will be fewer undecided voters within the viewing audience.   Finally, with the election polls now more in line with where I have been predicting they would be since Labor Day, I think there is likely to be a bit less volatility in the polling in the remaining 17 days before the Election.

Again, this is not to say that Monday’s debate “won’t matter.”   It should help at least some of the remaining undecideds begin considering their vote choice in light  of the fundamentals, and in this regard should continue the process of bringing the polling closer in line with the actual vote come November 6.   But I would be very surprised if it led to a bump, or slide, in Obama’s polling anywhere near the 2.7% impact of the first debate.

That doesn’t mean it won’t  be entertaining, however!  As always, I’ll be on, live blogging, and yes, the live blogging software is now installed and operating properly. (Really.  I mean it.)  So join in. It’s scheduled to start at 9, and I’ll be on slightly before.

And, remember, you can’t ever be sure who is watching the debate, and what they will learn (hat tip to Kate Hamilton)!

Did Romney Win A Binder Full of Women Voters?

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!)

Live Blogging the Second Presidential Debate

Ok, it’s 9:55 and we are on.  As always, we will be watching on CNN.  We have the new blogging software installed, and I’m eager to see how it works, so send me a test comment.

Meanwhile, Candy Crowley just gave the audience instructions – it’s alot like what I tell my students before an exam: turn off electronic hand-held devices, etc.

(Cason: are you on from Italy?  We need the foreign perspective….)

By the way, in what may be an omen – or not – we were hit with a mild earthquake about 1/2 hour ago.   So Vermont is a “swing” state of sorts….

One of the controversies with the format is that Crowley is not supposed to pose follow-up questions, but she has vowed to do so -despite language crafted by both sides indicating that she shouldn’t do this.

The other controversy is that Mitt apparently has never sat on a bar stool, so he’s been practicing all day….

First question: appropriately enough, from a college student.  What’s in it for me?

Mitt comes out emphasizing two themes: I can create jobs, and I’m not an extremist.  Look for him to push both themes all night.  In this case, he’s not cutting student loans.  Obama will push him on this.

Key in this format – remember the questioner’s name, and make eye contact. And here Obama stresses his major theme – he’s already turning the economy around, and no thanks to Mitt.

Once again, remember the target audience here – Ohio!

Obama is overcaffeinated – is there such a thing as too much energy?

And Candy breaks the contract and asks a follow up question – you go, Candy!

(For those of you complaining about our “new” software – it’s not the software I recommended…..sorry about that!)

Mitt is going  to defend the bankruptcy claim – I’m not sure he wants to go there.

(Has Obama’s voice gone up?)  Looks like he’s going to try to needle Mitt.  There is some who argue that Mitt can be rattled in these forums, and that’s when he slips up.. Obama has certainly come out aggressively, and already pushed the Mitt as Vulture Capitalist meme.

Question: gas prices are too high – is it the government’s job to address this?  Mitt will go right to Keystone here. Can you say “pipeline”?  Obama is trying to preempt this, but here comes the outsourcing green jobs too.  This is really a better issue for Mitt.  Will Candy follow up here with an environmental emphasis?

Pipeline – Ding, Ding, Ding!

Obama was ready for the coal comeback citing Mitt’s famous campaign ad promising to close a coal plant.

Mitt is coming across as a bit too much of a bully  here, I think…..and he’s ceding time to the President. …not a smart tactic….

Fact checkers will go crazy here, and they will likely find that both sides are right, depending on how you define terms.  And here’s Mitt citing rules again.  OBama is taking a page out of Biden’s playbook – cut Mitt off, talk over him, and let no point go unanswered.

Pipeline again.

Nice response by Barack to tie lower gas prices to a recession.  And to cite workers in key battleground states.

Mitt once again claims knowledge of rules – and looks a bit like the prissy guy we’ve seen in previous debates.

Question:  taxes.  This should be good.  I expect Barack to push Mitt here on the details of his tax plan.

Mitt scoring really well here with the focus group.  I guess people like tax reductions.  Who knew?  I expect Barack disagrees. Expect him to say the number don’t add up.  And there’s the famous Biden “buried middle class” reference.  It’s all about the middle class.

Well, I’m shocked, shocked!  Barack also wants to protect the middle class!  And the focus group doesn’t mind raising taxes on the wealthy.  Both guys scored well here.  This really get to the philosophical difference between the two candidates, and their parties.

Split camera reveals Obama smiling at Romney’s five-point plan.   Shades of Joe Biden.  Here comes the inevitable attack on Mitt’s math.  So far it’s not playing real well with the focus group.  Women in particular don’t seem to be buying this attack on Mitt’s failure to specify which cuts he will make.  Even the big Bird reference doesn’t work.   Too much detail maybe?  Ah, but support picks up when he summarizes as “Math doesn’t add up.”

Candy doesn’t want Mitt to respond immediately – Mitt is ready to explode!  Mitt doesn’t really answer the question by specifying his numbers, does he?

Question:  gender pay inequities – how would you address this?  Remember, if polls are to be believed, Mitt has cut into the gender gap a bit recently.  Obama should score with his reference to Ledbetter act.  Also, he focuses on education – a winning issue with women.  I expect Mitt to focus on how many jobs women have lost in the last four years.  One of the underappreciated facts of this recovery is that men are doing better than women.

AS Romney talks about actively seeking qualified women, support for his skies among women – men stay flat.  Mitt doing better here than I expected with personal anecdotes, but why no mention of women losing jobs?  Ah, here it comes…. scoring well here.

Obama comes back with healthcare – another winning issue for him with women.  Although the contraception/insurance issue is actually not playing well with women – not sure why.  Ah, but he picks up support when he poses it as economic issues affecting women.

Question:  Tell me you are not Bush.  Mitt; again citing rules, wants to answer the last question first.  Romney – appeals to Latino vote with Central American trade.  Energy independence means no more foreign wars.  Generally scoring well here.   But who will stand up for Big business?  No one ever does.   Generally a strong response here by Romney on a potentially difficult question.  Barack  should have an easier time criticizing Bush!    His partial reference to outsourcing gets a positive blip, but otherwise this isn’t playing well – except when he pivots to what the Obama administration did to curtail unfair trade practices with China.   Interesting pivot at the end here to get the “romney as social extremist” theme in.

Question: You disappointed me. Once jilted, why trust you again?  Nice opportunity for Obama to cite his record, and he is doing it well.  Focus group is generally pleased. But when he pivots to attacking Romney for back millionaires, support drops, particularly among women.  It seems clear that women in particular do not react well to candidates’ attacking each other.  Same story here for the Romney response – not playing all that well either.  Both candidates need to heed Ronald Reagan lesson – tell us how you will make things better!  Romney – contrast the President’s speaking with the record.   “That’s what this election is about”.   Defining statement of his candidacy.

(Ooops – keystroke error – just deleted my comments on immigration!)   Note the audience here – key voting bloc in some key swing states, but both candidates have to tread carefully here.  This is a very polarizing issue, which is why both candidates try to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants.

Romney has been waiting to pull a Gingrich moment here, and turn the tables on the President’s pension investment overseas, but it falls fall with all the cross-talk.  This started out well for both candidates but really degenerated quickly.

Question:  Benghazi (Seb – here’ s your foreign policy).   Note that Hillary fell on her sword earlier to give the President some cover on this issue.   Still, not a good issue for the President here.  “Hunt them down” – scores big with the focus group.  Shades of Bush!  And, don’t forget, I killed Bin Laden so I have credibility.   Look for Mitt to come back strong here.  Ok, maybe not.  Not quite sure focusing on Obama’s fundraising is really going to score points. Hmm…interesting tact here – Mitt is using this question to unload on all of the President’s foreign policy.   Candy has a follow up question – I think this is only the second one of the night.

The President is doing a great job here wrapping himself in the commander–in-chief flag, and it’s scoring well.  Romney’s effort to pin down Obama’s language is not really working here. Good exchange for the President.

Question:  What have you done about assault weapons?  Obama – weapons designed for soldiers shouldn’t be allowed on the streets.  But that’s only part of the problem.  Obama pushes a broader agenda here, and it seems to be playing well.  Romney pivots away from outlawing particular types of guns, and instead moves to broader socioeconomic issues.  Scoring well here as well. Both candidates played this well.  And Mitt gets in a shot at Fast and Furious.  Not sure a lot of people know the details about this?  Candy is having none of it – she wants to pin down Mitt’s views on assault weapons.

“Governor Romney was for a weapons assault before he was against it.”  Poor John Kerry – he will forever be tagged with that line…

Question:  Outsourcing of Jobs is bad. how to stop it?  Haven’t heard much about Bain yet, but it’s coming now!  Throw in the 47% comment while you are at it….Meanwhile, Mitt engages in some China-bashing and, by the way, label China as currency manipulator.  Obama is going to mention all the cases of unfair trade practices he’s brought against China.

Hmmm, now it’s the President who is going to close loopholes!  Candy wants to know how to get American companies to bring jobs home.  Mitt – level the playing field.  Obama – invest in advanced manufacturing.  (With whose money? He doesn’t say…)

Question: biggest misperception of you as man, and as a candidate?  Mitt: I’m not a 47% kind of guy. I believe in God. And the Olympics.  And got 100% of Massachusetts kids insured.   This quickly veers into a policy manifesto….

Obama – Bringing some passion here.  And here comes the 47% comment – and it falls flat with the focus group.   He’s was doing so well! Once he moves past this, however, and goes back to advancing opportunity, he scores better.

Ann is immediately on the floor – and here’s Michelle.

Let’s see how the post-debate spin plays out. I have to think the Obama supporters are happy.  Their guy came up off the mat and fought at least to a draw, if not an outright win on points.  (Time for the sports analogies).  I thought Mitt scored on the economic issues that favored him, but he made more obvious errors (the Libya exchange) and too often came across as too focused on rules, and scoring debating points.  Obama parried as well as he could on the economic issues, but it’s generally not a winning area for him.  But he was more aggressive and did a better job on keeping Romney on the defensive in terms of explaining himself.  And when he could wrap himself in the commander-in-chief role, he was able to bring some passion and righteous indignation to the debate.

Keep in mind that there are two narratives here – the one based what actually transpired, as seen by the audience, and then how the media interprets what happened.  The two do not always coincide.   We will have to see how the tweets play this – I completely forgot to see how the alternative universe was playing this – anyone keeping track of that?

On the whole, although Obama may be viewed as the “winner”, I’m not sure this is going to have nearly the polling impact that the first debate did, but that was my belief heading into this.  Both sides got all their talking points in, and did generally well in stressing their winning themes.

The key question to me is whether Obama’s aggressiveness scored points, but at the expense of laying out a positive vision as an alternative to Romney.  Romney, on the other hand, did what he always did: stayed relentlessly on message, which was jobs, jobs, jobs.  His major weakness was getting distracted by petty squabbles on rules and factual disputes. If I was a truly undecided voter, it’s not clear to me that either candidate earned my vote.

Remember, when you see a poll saying who “won” the debate, you need to also check on the partisan makeup of the viewership that was polled. I suspect Obama will be judged a slight winner, but probably not enough to move the polls among undecideds.

Ok, I took a quick look into the bizarro world of the twitterverse.  Here’s some selected tweets:

Maddow: “probably, I think, the best debate of Barack Obama’s career as a national politician.”  I’m sure she’s seen every one!

Erick Erickson@EWErickson

“Obama definitely did better than the last time, but I don’t think it was enough. Romney kept reminding everyone about Obama’s record.”   I’m shocked, shocked!

The Atlantic@TheAtlantic

.@JamesFallows breaks down tonight’s debate: Obama was strong, Romney was rattled http://theatln.tc/U1nsMa. (Fallows is a former Carter speechwriter.)

“Luntz focus group of former Obama voters calls it a win for Romney.”

This is why I love the twitterverse – neither side lives in reality.  Instead, they create virtual reality.   The strangest thing is they really, really,  really believe their alternative reality is real!

More spin:

“I’m still trying to figure out why Steve Schmidt wants me to believe that this debate wasn’t a TOTAL knock-out for PBO. #Debates #MSNBC

“Jay Cost@JayCostTWS

Candy Crowley did Obama a real disservice tonight by fact checking wrongly.”

And this: “RT @kakukowski: Candy Crowley now says @MittRomney was right: “He was right in the main, but he just chose the wrong word.”

This is a reminder why I’m down on “fact checking” – the Libya story is being spun by both sides as proving that their guy was right, and the other side was wrong.  The “truth” is that “reality” rarely can be summed up as either completely black or completely white.

Great participation tonight – thanks to all! I’ll have another go at the blogging software.  Maybe the third time is the charm? Meanwhile, I’ll be on tomorrow with an post-mortem.