Any serious observer of the presidential election has to be scratching his/her head. In mid-September Obama was on track for reelection because Romney, at that point, had been deemed unacceptable by a vast segment of the electorate. Now, in mid-October, the President is dazed, staggered by a near knockout in the first debate and a subsequent Romney surge that seems to have the Governor on a winning trajectory. The problem is that neither scenario accounts for unplanned events. No one anticipated what happened in the first debate (a huge Romney performance and a terrible one from the president), but it did and it has changed things considerably. This election is roughly back to where it was in May of this year before Team Obama decimated Romney with negative ads. With 21 days to go, this race is essentially tied.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the debate two weeks ago shifted the course of this election dramatically. As we noted, the race began to show a natural tightening -- as you would expect -- about 30 days ago, but this accelerated after the October 3rd debate. That night, nearly 70 million viewers watched both candidates debate. The following week -- and its avalanche of negative reviews -- was devastating for the president. Even the positive jobs report did little to stop the bleeding. Below is our election trend line; it speaks for itself. There has been a significant change to the trend following the first presidential debate, and the VP debate did nothing to change its trajectory (it's entirely possible that tonight's debate, of course, could alter the current trend).
For the first time in four months Romney is even with -- or slightly ahead of -- the president. As you can see, the last 20 days have seen this election's most extreme vote change period. In addition to picking up undecided voters, some "lean Obama" voters switched to Romney.
While the race is roughly even, the president still retains an electoral vote edge... but that too is beginning to show signs of erosion. Three weeks ago we thought the race had narrowed to seven battleground states. The Romney surge, however, has put one of those seven (North Carolina) into the lean GOP column. It has also added two states that were previously lean Obama back into the toss-up column: New Hampshire and Wisconsin. In all, there are now eight toss-up states, all of which are within the margin of error. Below is our updated EV projection map:
Let's take a quick look at what each of the candidates has going for him as we head into the campaign's final three weeks. For Romney:
- Team Romney had one debate goal -- to lower his unfavorable rating -- and it succeeded. For months, the Governor's unfavorable rating was in an unelectable range. Our analysis of recent polling data suggests that Romney has had a stunning reversal on this front. Romney's unfavorable rating has dropped seven-eight points in 14 days. His current favorable/unfavorable rating is actually better than Obama's.
- Women are driving the Romney surge. While the Governor has consistently led the president among men he has been down among women by as much as 10-15 points. The latest Gallup poll shows Romney even with Obama among women (Romney at 48 percent, Obama at 49 percent). Romney clearly connected with women in the first debate; this will be a crucial indicator to watch after tonight's debate.
- The economy is showing more signs of improvement. It is not just the falling unemployment rate: housing starts are up, the stock market is climbing and consumer confidence is improving. Which leads us to...
- Perceptions of the direction of the country continue to improve. While nearly six in ten still think that things are off on the wrong track, it would be significant for the president if more than 40 percent think things are going in the right direction by election day.
- Obama has a chance to beat the expectations game tonight. Debate expectations for the president are far lower for this debate then they were for round one. Going into the first debate most people thought Obama would win (giving Obama the edge by more than 20 points). Now, according to a Pew survey, people think Obama will do better than Romney by a margin of just 41 to 37 percent. The media is ready to write the Obama comeback story, all they need is a script.
Thanks again to Pete Ventimiglia, Chris Blunt, Kelsey Cohen and Allison Quigley for their insights and contributions to the Election Monitor. Follow us on Twitter: @Steve_Lombardo.
Please note that the author was an advisor to the Romney for President campaign in 2008, but is not affiliated with any campaign in 2012.