The Pew Research Center has near-impeccable credentials with its polls, which is why yesterday’s—which showed Mitt Romney ahead by four points among likely voters—inspired mass panic among supporters of President Obama. Andrew Sullivan was at the forefront of the freakout. In a post titled “Did Obama just throw the election away?”, he excoriated Obama’s lackluster debate performance:
“I’ve never seen a candidate self-destruct for no external reason this late in a campaign before. … I’m trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it’s hard to see how a president and his party recover.”
Sullivan will have more grist for the mill if he wants to continue to voice his disappointment with Obama. This morning, the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling released a national poll that shows Romney with a two-point lead over Obama among likely voters, 49 percent to 47 percent. Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos, calls this “disastrous.” The major polling averages have already changed to reflect this shift in the race, and they all show a sizable decline in Obama’s overall performance. The Real Clear Politics average gives him a 0.5 percent lead over Romney; the Pollster average gives him a two-percent lead over Romney; and Talking Points Memo has Romney with a 2.4 percent advantage.
If you’re an Obama supporter, this looks like a fail of epic proportions. But there’s reason to believe that the worst is over. Ignore sample sizes or partisan ID or any the other polling Kremlinology that’s popular on Twitter. The only thing you need to know about the Pew and PPP polls is that they were taken in the immediate post-debate period, from Thursday to Sunday. Thanks to tracking polls from Gallup and Rasmussen, we know two things about the aftermath of the debate. First, that Romney received a decent-sized bounce of three to four points, and second, that this bounce began to subside as exuberance from the debate died down.
Gallup, in particular, is instructive. Its three-day tracking poll, from Thursday to Saturday, showed Romney close the gap and turn the race into a tie, 47 percent to 47 percent. But its seven day poll, conducted from October 1 to October 7, had Obama with a five-point lead, 50 to 45. Either the results of October 1–3 were strong enough to outweigh the results of 4–6, or Sunday showed a serious dropoff in Romney’s support.
Rasmussen polls conducted during the same period suggest that it was the latter, and Romney saw a decline in support during the weekend. According to Rasmussen, Romney went from 49-percent support in the immediate post-debate period to 48 percent once Thursday was dropped and the sample was limited to Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Likewise, PPP found that support for Romney dropped as the weekend came to a close: Romney won Thursday and Friday by a combined 2.5 points, while he won Saturday and Sunday by just half a point. The bulk of responses (75 percent) were received on Thursday and Friday.
Romney’s four-point lead in the Pew poll is consistent with what I’ve described. In all likelihood, Pew recorded an outstanding performance for Romney on Thursday and Friday, which dipped a little on Saturday, and then further on Sunday. The Pew poll reflects Romney’s improved standing with voters. But odds are good it doesn’t reflect the reality of public opinion, especially given new evidence that the debate bounce was short-lived: The most recent survey from the Washington Post and ABC News shows both candidates with improved favorables, but Obama still ahead of Romney by eight points. And, most importantly, Obama’s job-approval rating remains near (or slightly above) 50 percent, a good sign for any incumbent. So there's the silver lining Sullivan was hoping for.
After the debate, I said that the president's loss wouldn’t matter. More evidence is needed for a definitive judgment, but for now, it’s fair to say that was wrong. The debate has shaken up the race and pulled Romney into a near toss-up with President Obama. He’s not winning, but he’s closer than he’s been all year.