Mitt Romney Finally Gets a Bounce

This weekend, the questions for everyone tracking the election was straightforward: Has Mitt Romney received a bounce in the polls on the strength of his debate performance? And has it turned the race into a toss-up? The national pollsters have yet to release their live-interviewer surveys from the last several days, but swing-state polls show signs of improvement for the former Massachusetts governor.

October 5–7

Pollster Date State LV/RV Obama Romney Margin
Gallup 10/06 USA RV 49 46 O+3
Rasmussen 10/07 USA LV 47 49 R+2
Rasmussen 10/05 Florida LV 47 49 R+2
We Ask America 10/05 Florida LV 46 49 R+3
Rasmussen 10/05 Virginia LV 48 49 R+1
We Ask America 10/05 Virginia LV 46 49 R+3
Rasmussen 10/05 Ohio LV 50 49 O+1
We Ask America 10/05 Ohio LV 46 47 R+1
McLaughlin/ACU 10/05 Colorado LV 46 50 R+4
Gravis Marketing 10/05 Nevada LV 49 48 O+1
Public Policy Polling 10/06 Wisconsin LV 49 47 O+2
University of Denver 10/06 Colorado LV 47 43 O+4
Gravis Marketing 10/06 Colorado LV 46 49 R+3

With the exception of Public Policy Polling, these are all pollsters that favor Republican candidates. They either undercount nonwhites, overcount whites, or rely heavily on surveys that exclude key groups of Democratic-leaning voters. But we shouldn’t dismiss or discount these results; for all of the problems with each survey, they give us a sense of where some of the electorate is heading. In this case, it’s clear Mitt Romney has received a significant boost from his highly praised performance at last week’s presidential debate. It’s still hard to pinpoint the source of the boost, but given Romney’s longstanding problem with Republican-leaning independents—who aren’t sure whether or not to support the former governor—there’s a good chance that Romney is benefiting from both heightened enthusiasm and new support from formerly disaffected voters. There’s also a chance that he has peeled some support from President Obama, but we’ll know for sure later in the week, when further polls are released.

With all of that said, it’s important not to overstate the extent to which Romney’s performance has changed the race. Political journalists tend to focus on the horse race, and are eager to latch on to new developments. The problem is that they don’t provide an accurate sense of where the race stands. If gaffes have been your guideposts for this election, you might think that it’s been a close toss-up for most of the year. Romney had his disastrous foreign tour and the Clint Eastwood incident; Obama had “the private sector is doing fine” and “you didn’t build that.”

But the truth is that this race has been stable through most of the year. From April to August, Obama held around 47-percent support, and Romney held around 45 percent. After the conventions, Obama’s support floated to 50 percent—where it’s been since for the last month—and Romney’s hovered at 45 percent.

The fundamentals of the election haven’t changed. The economy is improving, and at 7.8 percent, unemployment is at its lowest point since Obama took office. This is high, but the absolute level of joblessness—or the amount of economic growth—is less important than the trend. Given slight improvement, election forecasters predict a small advantage for the incumbent, which is what we’ve seen throughout this election.

More Americans are optimistic about the future—44 percent say the economy will get better over the next year—and fewer say that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Obama doesn’t have great ratings on handling the economy—according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, only 47 percent approve—but Romney doesn’t fare better. Overall, across more than a dozen polls, the two candidates are tied on who is better for economic growth—a sure sign that voters are willing to give the president another four years.

On the political side, Obama’s approval rating has held steady at 49 to 50 percent, and Romney remains unpopular with the public at large. His debate performance might have improved those numbers, but he’s still at the low end of popularity for a major party nominee.

It’s worth repeating a point Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall made yesterday: Often, post-event polling is accurate, but not reflective of the state of the race. The combination of exuberance on one side and disappointment on the other can create the appearance of movement, when the reality is stable. Romney has almost certainly made gains as a result of Wednesday’s debate. But the question is whether they’ve fundamentally changed the race. If I had to place a bet, I’d say no.