Tag Archives: debate

When in Danger, When In Doubt, Run In Circles, Scream and Shout!

I’m home after another long, long day of teaching and then another election talk, but I wanted to comment briefly on today’s Pew poll which has driven many Obama supporters to despair.  That poll has Mitt Romney up by 4%, 49%-45%, over Barack Obama among likely voters, and tied at 46% among registered voters.  This is a sharp turnaround from the last Pew poll in the field Sept. 12-16, which had Romney trailing Obama by 8%, 51%-43%.   The latest poll represents a 12% gain by Romney in less than a month – a turnaround that just rubs salt in the wound for Democrats already reeling from polls suggesting that Romney cleaned Obama’s clock in the most heavily watched first presidential debate since 1980, when incumbent Jimmy Carter squared off against Ronald Reagan in their only debate. (The figures for the Romney-Obama debate do not include those who viewed it on social media.)

Consistent with other polls, Pew found that Romney was viewed as doing a better job in the debate by 72-20%.  This included 78% of independents and even 45% of Democrats who thought Romney bested Obama.* As debate polls go, this is a rather significant drubbing; rarely do we see such a lop-sided verdict, particularly among the “loser’s” own partisan supporters.  If the polls are to be believed, Romney’s debate “victory” has led to a significant tightening of the race, both nationally and in the critical swing states.  For example, Gallup’s pre- and post-debate polls indicate that Romney has moved from a 5% deficit into a tie with Obama among registered voters.

In the RealClearPolitics composite poll, we see a similar result, with Obama’s 3.1% lead on the day before the debate dwindling to .5% tonight.

We see a similar effect in state-level polling in battleground states. In Michigan, the latest poll has Romney within 3% in a state considered out of reach just a week ago.   Colorado, Florida and Virginia are now essentially dead heats, and Romney has moved within 3% of Obama in the critical state of Ohio, a state in which he trailed by nearly 6% before the debate.

All this is a reminder of two points I have made repeatedly: first, national tides raise all of Romney’s state-based boats.  Too often pundits view states as having their own unique constituencies.  But the reality is that both candidates are fighting over the same type of undecided voters across all states, and if one candidate is able to win over these undecideds, it will boost his support across all the battleground states.  We see precisely this effect occurring after the debate.

Second – and in what some may view as a contradiction of my first point – we should not overestimate the impact of the first debate.   I have been arguing for some time now that the state-level battleground polls will gradually align with the national tracking polls.  At the same time, I have claimed that the economic fundamentals indicate that this will be a very close race (the mean prediction of the dozen or so political science forecast models has Obama winning slightly more than 50% of the two-party vote.)  If the mean forecast model is correct, Obama will win by a far smaller margin than what the national tracking polls were saying for most of September.  And if we factor in the uncertainty surrounding those forecasts, many political scientists believe this election is a dead heat. For that reason I was reasonably confident that the September polls indicating that Obama was running away with this race were overstating his support due, in part I believe, to how pollsters were constructing their likely voter screens.  What Wednesday’s debate did, I suspect, is to impact Pew’s likely voter screen in ways that increased the number of Republican respondents they included in their final poll relative to Democrats.  In other words, the debate didn’t switch votes so much as it increased Republicans’ enthusiasm for their candidate enough so that it affected Pew’s likely voter screen.

As evidence, consider the gender gap. One of the more surprising findings from the Pew poll is that Romney has apparently drawn even with Obama among women. Last month, for reasons that I discussed in a recent Economist post, Obama led Romney among women by 18 points, 56%-38%.  If the latest Pew poll is to be believed, Romney has now drawn even with the President with women, at 47%.  Did he really erase Obama’s lead among women in less than a month?  I suspect not.  Instead, I think this is probably a function of how Pew constructed their sample after Wednesday’s debate.

My bottom line is that Wednesday’s debate focused enough attention on the fundamentals to erase Obama’s polling lead which was largely based on his relative advantage in framing this race in a way that played to his strengths.  But we shouldn’t overreact and buy into Pew’s results which indicate that Romney has now established a substantial lead.  Instead, my read of the composite polls indicates that the race, as of today, stands almost exactly where I have been arguing it has stood for the last two months.  Obama is ahead, but by the slimmest of margins.

Game on!

*An earlier version of this post had those numbers slightly off – I’ve corrected them here.

Democrats: Is It Time To Panic?

Those who saw Mitt Romney eviscerate New Gingrich in the debate just prior to the Florida Republican primary likely weren’t surprised by Mitt’s strong performance against President Obama on Wednesday night.  Although Mitt has been justly cited for marring his debate performances with the occasional off-hand – and off-message – line (see: I like firing employees, buying Cadillacs for my wife and killing Big Bird), he has also exhibited an ability to devise and implement a debating game plan based on staying focused, sticking to his message, driving his points home and utilizing opposition research to put his opponents on the defensive.  All these traits were on display Wednesday, and he more than met my expectations that he would do well.

But if Mitt’s performance did not surprise me, Obama’s did.  While perhaps lacking the superior debating skills of a Gingrich, Obama showed in his three debates against John McCain, and against his Democratic rivals during the nomination campaign, that he is more than competent on the debating stage.  Most observers thought Obama won all three of his general election presidential debates in 2008. But even many Democrats conceded that Obama did poorly on Wednesday.

In the debate post-mortem, Obama’s defenders put forth a variety of explanations for the President’s underwhelming performance, beginning with Stephanie Cutters’ effort in the spin room to implicitly blame moderator Jim Lehrer for not putting a stop to Romney’ s bullying tactics. Al Gore – he of the 2000 debating “sigh” – suggested the President had not fully acclimated to Denver’s altitude.  Even less plausible was the argument voiced by many on left-leaning blogs that Obama was engaged in some “deep game” designed to lull Team Romney into complacency.

I suspect the explanation is far more prosaic.  Certainly the President look fatigued, which given the demands of his job is quite understandable.   In 1984 Ronald Reagan submitted a turkey of a first debate performance, and his wife Nancy argued strenuously that her Ronnie had been overworked with debate preparation while simultaneously carrying out his day job.  Reagan cut back on his workload, started the second debate with a memorable joke that addressed the whispering campaign about his age and also cracked his opponent up, and sailed to victory.

Part of Obama’s poor performance, however, may also be attributable to contextual factors that affect all incumbent presidents: the need to defend a record. Romney did not miss many opportunities to point out that the economic recovery has been slower than expected during Obama’s time in office. As I noted in my previous post, two of the three previous incumbents dating back to 1992 running for reelection lost polling ground after their first debate, and in the aggregate the three dropped slightly more than 1% in their polling average (note that I had that figure wrong in my initial midnight post), and about the same amount overall after all three debates.  To be sure, they weren’t each running on equally bad records, but they still had to play defense, at least on some issues.  Similarly, the incumbent party’s candidate has lost a shade less than 1% on average in the pre-to post-debate polls dating back to 1988.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that Obama, as the incumbent, didn’t clean Romney’s clock in the first debate – incumbents rarely do.

Nor should we overreact to Obama’s “loss”.  Going back to the Kennedy-Nixon 1960 debates, Gallup’s polling numbers show that it is rare for a candidate trailing before the first debate, as Romney was, to pull ahead to win the race.  The three exceptions based on the Gallup data are Kennedy in 1960, Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2000.  So, the next iteration of this pattern shouldn’t take place until 2020!  Of course it is not clear that the debate, by itself, had as much to do with Reagan’s 1980 victory as did the Iranian government’s announcement that they would not release American hostages prior to the Election.  In 2000, of course, Al Gore won the popular vote.  And Kennedy only trailed Nixon by 1% prior to their first televised debate.

So it would be surprising, but not unprecedented, if Romney pulled ahead on the basis of his performances in the three debates this fall.  However, I have been arguing for some time that the economic fundamentals suggest that this race will be quite close come November 6th and that the swing state polls showing Obama with a nearly unbeatable Electoral College edge right now are likely going to tighten, coming into closer alignment with national tracking polls, as more individuals begin focusing on the race. For this reason, I have suggested paying less attention to swing states, and more to national tracking polls.

To be sure, my view is not shared by all (Most?  Any?) of my political science colleagues.  For example, Emory political scientist Drew Linzer, whose election forecast website is a must read for anyone interested in the state of the current race (and whose work is completely transparent!) doesn’t think the presidential race is close at all.  Instead he has Obama ahead by a comfortable margin in the Electoral College.  Based in part on the polls, Drew argues, “If anyone tries to tell you the presidential race is close, don’t believe it. It’s just not true.”  My claim, of course, is that those swing-state polls will begin to tighten in relatively uniform fashion, and in fact there was evidence that they were doing just that prior to Wednesday’s debate.  Moreover, if the debate served to focus voters’ attention on the fundamentals, then one would expect the race to tighten even more – if my interpretation is correct.

If that happens, of course, the general sense of unease that suddenly descended on Obama Nation two nights ago will turn into a full-scale panic, and we will begin seeing exactly the type of carping and finger-pointing that broke out among Republican opinion leaders like Peggy Noonan, Bill Kristol and David Brooks when Obama appeared to open up a big post-convention,  post-“47%” gaffe polling lead.*   My message to Democrats tonight is similar to what I told Republicans then:  Obama did not lose the race Wednesday night, any more than Bain Capital, or the 47% remark, killed Romney’s chances.  Polls ebb and flow in response to media coverage and interpretation of campaign events like debates (although the polls gain predictive power as we get closer to the Election), and forecasting models based on them will respond to those fluctuations in kind.  I persist in believing the race will tighten down the home stretch, so that Obama’s final vote total will come much closer to the median political science forecast than indicated by the swing state polls now.

Could I be wrong?  Sure.  (See 1992 and 2000!)   That’s what makes this so fun!  In the meantime, let the panic begin!

*See tonight’s Saturday Night Live!  Wonderful parody of MSNBC cast in post-debate meltdown here.

Obama Got the Memo Too


The last two days are a reminder, as we head into tonight’s debate, how hard it is for either candidate to singlehandedly change the fundamentals, particularly the impact of the economy, that are driving this election.  In my last post I suggested that McCain needed to issue an economic policy plan that appealed to middle-class voters in order to reframe the economy in a way that helped his campaign.  He did just that on Tuesday by calling for a reduction in the highest tax rate on long-term capital gains from 15 percent to 7.5 percent in 2009 and 2010, and – in a bid to drum up support from senior citizens – he advocated lowering the tax rates on withdrawals from IRA and 401(k) accounts to 10 percent, the lowest rate, in 2008 and 2009 (this would apply to the first $50,000 withdrawn.)  Early estimates are that this plan may cost more than $50 billion. This is on top of his earlier proposal to use some $300 billion of the $700 billion bailout money to buy up bad mortgages.  The proposals are clearly directed toward lower-income middle class workers and retirees, two key voting blocs in swing states like Florida and Ohio that McCain must hold onto if he is to win this election.

The problem, from McCain’s perspective, is that evidently Obama got the memo too!  On Monday, he preempted McCain by issuing his own set of economic proposals targeting the very same voters.  These included giving businesses that create new jobs tax breaks, freezing bank foreclosures and a limited government-funded public works loan program for state and local governments to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. Obama also proposed suspending penalties on retirees who begin liquidating their 401(k)’s early if the stock market has bottomed out.

Although there are significant differences in the two candidates’ economic proposals, one can understand if voters who look at the two plans do not move in significant numbers into one camp or the other.  Both contain elements of an economic stimulus package, both target the middle-class and both seek to minimize hardship caused by home foreclosures and shrinking retirement nest eggs.  Both, however, threaten to exacerbate the expected budget deficit by reducing tax revenues flowing into the government. Critics argue that Obama’s plan, with its estimated $60 billion price tag, threatens to throw his budget entirely out of whack and increase an already huge budget deficit.  But McCain’s proposals also create a potential revenue shortfall.

I will leave it to you to parse the details of the dueling economic policy proposals. I do not mean to dismiss their substantive significance. Instead, my broader point is to remind you why political scientists find little evidence of campaign effects, and why forecast models issued in August are often quite accurate.  As we see this last week, one candidate’s attempt to frame issues in ways that benefit his election chances begat a counter effort via an opposing frame. These efforts often negate one another.

It is important to remember this as we head into tonight’s final debate and the inevitable spin about what the candidates must accomplish. The odds are that, like the three previous debates, it will have little impact on either candidate’s standing among voters.