Advice To Obama Supporters: Get An Effing Grip On Yourselves!

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!)


  1. Thanks, as always, for the post. Do you think it’s possible that Romney has been planning a pivot to the center all along and was thus hoarding cash and not releasing specifics?

  2. George,

    I think the “pivot” to the center was driven more by polling that showed Obama was successfully painting Romney as a “vulture capitalist” who did not understand the concerns of the middle class. Like any good politician, Romney reacted by trying to reframe the debate in a way that turned the fundamentals to his advantage. That is, he tried to accentuate the lack of job growth under Obama while disavowing the more extremist inclinations attributed to him by Obama. This is why political scientists tend to downplay the impact of campaigns – our assumption is predicated on the belief that candidates act strategically to maximize their advantages, given the state of the fundamentals. In the end, these efforts tend to cancel the impact of the other’s efforts, so that the final outcome really reflects the state of the fundamentals. And in this case, those fundamentals are suggesting this will be a close race – closer than it is now.

  3. Thanks,

    Just curious, which 2 of the past 6 elections did you fail to successfully predict? I presume 2000 and perhaps 1992?

  4. Nick – You nailed them both. In my defense, I actually came pretty close to Gore’s popular vote in 2000 – closer than most of the political science models. But I never ever envisioned that he would lose the Electoral College. In 1992 I just thought the economic fundamentals meant the incumbent George H. W. Bush would win reelection. Like George, I blame his loss, (and my failed prediction) on Ross Perot!

  5. I just got my grip back with the jobs report (7.8% UE) and the Republicans claiming the POTUS manipulates BLS stats.

    I agree that Romney won the debate. I still don’t buy the idea that all campaigns are equally effective and cancel out.

    Seems like debate performances, economy, jobs reports, campaigns all add up over time.

    So how do you think Obama counters the new “Massachusetts Mitt” in the next debate?

  6. Matt:

    Amazingly, I am almost in total agreement with your analysis. Yes, the numbers were closing before the debate, and there is no question that Obama looked like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. The question is why?

    My theory is that he has way too long been sheltered and fed his own kool-aid, and frankly thought he could go in and win by showing his cool and having a memorized closing. He did not expect the Romney that showed up.

    There are things that a President knows that we don’t, that’s a given. Perhaps there is something big, but more likely, it could be a brewing scandal – – there’s a rumor about untraceable donations on credit cards bought for cash in huge numbers, also the new job numbers look like they’ve been jiggered and he would know those numbers early. Could be any of a number of distractions. Certainly isn’t Al Gore’s explanation that he had altitude sickness.

    But, my theory is that he just doesn’t have any record upon which to run, so he is stuck with criticizing what Romney puts up. Because he is woefully unfamiliar with economics, it is hard for him to do it easily. He predictably blew it. This theory is bolstered by the Chicago thugs crying “Liar, Liar” all over the Internet and talk shows immediately in the morning. Pure David Axelrod.

    Do you know the old Law School adage – “If the facts are against you, argue the law; if the law is against you, argue the facts; and if the law and facts are against you, call the other lawyer an ********.”?

    The next debate is not the Town Hall – you ignore the Vice president debate on October 11. Is there a bigger wonk on the Hill than Paul Ryan? Perhaps it will not draw the same amount, but there will be sound and picture bytes galore. It will be on Domestic and Foreign Policy. I suspect it will take on more importance that most (including you) are attaching to it.

    My take is that this race is all tied up right now. Romney has a slight edge, just enough that he has to win one of the two remaining debates left with Obama. Ryan may change that to only needing two draws, but that remains to be seen.

    I hope you find time to blog the Ryan-Biden funfest.

  7. I think the effects of this first debate are huge, an outlier historically, for one simple reason: expectations. For a couple months now, the mainstream media has framed Mitt Romney as a stumbling, bumbling buffoon – simply, a tool of the wealthiest in America, an out of touch 1 percenter. In fact, never before have we seen the challenger with such low favorabilitiy ratings (sub 50) at this stage of the game… the voters were buying this interpretation of Mitt, and they were buying it big.

    So going into last night, they expected to see this bumbling fool get dashed by the POTUS like a knife cutting through hot butter. Instead, they saw the Mitt who became Governor of Massachusetts, the Mitt who was a very successful businessman, etc. And as Newt Gingrich would tell you from his experience in Florida, this Mitt is no fool. So to see him best Obama, and best him easily, was a complete shock to the majority of the 60 million viewers that night. Hence, the 67-25 instant CNN debate poll and the like. And so now, it’s a whole new ballgame.

    I think now, voters are saying to themselves… wait, maybe this isn’t a choice between a mediocre President and a bumbling buffoon? Maybe the alternative could be better… a lot better. That Mitt up there did not look like the Mitt that has been described to me for the past several months. That Mitt looked like he could be a better president than Obama. And in my mind, he sure as heck looked more presidential than Obama that night.

    Anyways, just my two cents. I must admit though, I think the jobs report this morning will do some to blunt the damage, as the media can shift the narrative a bit away from Mitt’s momentum. But I think this still was a gamechanger nonetheless. This is a horse race to the finish line now.

  8. Speaking of the jobs report, does anyone else feel like maybe something smells fishy?

    Looks like 800,000 people suddenly decided to go out and seek part time work or start home businesses to help move the rate down a few points and make Obama’s anemic job record look a little better. Still only 114,000 new jobs, leaving 23 Million in part time or no jobs.

    Those numbers will be revised, or course, but after the election. Duh.
    Axelrod and his band of Chicago Thugs have no shame; there is no depth to which they will not sink.

    I have faith that the American people are smarter than to fall for this constant drum beat of lies, deceptions and snake oil.

    We won’t have too long to wait to find out, will we?

    BTW, Rasmusson has Ohio 50% Obama and 49% Romney this morning. That’s about what we all figured, I think.

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