Once again, my best intentions have been dashed – DASHED! – I tell you, by the demands of my day job. I thoroughly intended to provide an in-depth post-debate analysis designed to both talk Obama supporters back off the ledge and to caution Romney’s true believers from engaging in a bout of irrational exuberance. Instead, it’s pushing midnight and I only have time for a quick synopsis. So let me start with this succinct advice to Obama supporters: GET A EFFING GRIP ON YOURSELVES! (And I mean that in the nicest way possible. Really.) Contrary to what the devotees worshiping in the Church of Obama have tweeted/blogged in the last 24 hours – e.g., “How is Obama’s closing statement so fucking sad, confused and lame? He choked. He lost. He may even have lost the election tonight” – the race is not over. Indeed, last night is not even a game changer – no more than the secret 47% tape, or the Bain ads (sorry Kevin Drum!) doomed Romney. Let me be clear: Romney clearly “won” the debate, however we measure these things – that much, I think is indisputable. Even Democrats seem to acknowledge as much in the post-debate polls. (It is also indisputable that many pundits/Obama supporters will disagree with me.) But what impact does “winning” a presidential debate really have? History suggests not much (as I meant to tell you before last night). Here’s some evidence, courtesy of political scientists Chris Wezlien and Robert Erickson (but I could cite a lot more!):
Note that if we look at first debates that involve an incumbent dating back to 1992 (WARNING! N of 3!) the average loss for the incumbent in the post-first debate polls has been about 1.2%*. Of course, that’s just the first poll – but across three debates (we still have two to go!), incumbents have lost on average about 1%. So, given that historical record, what is the likely polling impact (notice I said polling –not vote change?) of last night’s debate? Most of my colleagues are suggesting it will be minimal – for example, John Sides is betting that Romney is going to pick up a point or so based on last night’s performance. I think it will be closer to the 2.5%-3.5% range – but that won’t be entirely attributable to the debate (although pundits will attribute any polling gains by Romney in the next week to the debate). Instead, I think Romney was poised to close the polling gap even if last night’s debate had not happened.
Look, I acknowledge that I am either going to be the one guy who didn’t get it, or someone who looks impressively prescient (or stubborn) when this is all over, but I have not bought into the media-driven narrative that Obama has been pulling away in recent weeks. In part this is because I tend to downplay swing-state polling in favor of relying on national tracking polls, in the belief that national tides will affect all states – swing and non-swing – somewhat evenly. And the national tracking polls have shown this to be a closer race than have the swing state polls. But the bigger factor is that I’m not yet ready to abandon the political science forecast models just because a bunch of cable guys (and some name-brand prognosticators [you know who I mean]) are convinced that recent polling indicates a drop in Romney’s win probability. Yes, I know that the political science forecasts are predicting a range of outcomes – but as regular readers know, I tend to think the median prediction of the dozen or so models is pretty reliable. In other words, debate or no debate, I think Romney was likely to close this polling gap as we got closer to the Election Day. It is also worth noting, however, that those models, in the aggregate do NOT suggest that Romney will pull ahead. Contrary to what many think, the economic fundamentals do not suggest Romney should win this race outright.
So, if I’m right (and all those other pundits are not) why is Romney behind in the polls by more than what the average of the forecast models suggest? In our regular “professor pundits” taping for today, my colleague Bert Johnson sought to explain the discrepancy in the national and swing-state polls by suggesting it reflects Romney’s decision to hold back a bit on advertising in the battleground states, in the belief that he who advertises last, advertises best. The idea here – based on an interesting paper by a bunch of political scientists – is that the impact of political advertising on voters’ support has a very short shelf life. So rather than spend money early on swing-state advertising – as Obama has been doing – the better strategy is to come in late with a dominant buying spree. Of course, the fact that roughly 35% of voters will vote early makes this a risky strategy. As does relying on a single finding based on a Texas gubernatorial race, I might add! (I should note that Bert isn’t claiming that this is what Romney is doing – only that it is a potential explanation for his willingness to let Obama take the early advertising lead in the swing states.) I don’t claim to buy Bert’s explanation; I can think of a variety of reasons for why Romney’s swing-state polling hasn’t matched the forecasts as yet, ranging from oversampling of Democrats/slightly screwy likely voter screens to the usual tendency of many voters to answer polls at this point in the election in terms of which candidate is getting the best of current media coverage rather than based on who they will vote for when they are in the polling booth. (For what it is worth, I reject the conservative pundits’ claim that pollsters are in the tank for Obama.)
The bottom line is I’m sticking by my fundamentals-based methodology that has stood me well in the past. (Ok, maybe not as well as I’d like to think – my forecasts have missed two of the last six elections! Which reminds me: I owe you my traditional forecast. It’s coming, day job permitting) And that methodology says this race was going to tighten no matter what happened last night (barring, of course, a disastrous performance by Mitt.) The fact that Mitt won the debate will likely focus attention on the fundamentals in a way that might accelerate what was going to happen anyway.
Yes, Romney won the debate last night. But no, Obama did not lose the election as a result, and Romney did not win it. There are two more presidential debates to go, for Pete’s sake. (True, they will be even less influential.)
That’s my story, and I’m sticking by it. Tomorrow (day job permitting) I will explain why Obama lost the debate. In my view, it has far less to do with him, and far more with the institutional constraints that affect all incumbent presidents in their first debate.
*In my initial late night posting, my math skills departed completely and I reported incorrect post-debates averages. These have been corrected (I hope!)