Last week's debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney was an even bigger win for Romney than it appeared at the time. That's what the polls are telling us.
The debate, it seems, prompted swing voters to take a second look at the GOP candidate, and it also boosted Republican voters' resolve to get out and vote.
As a result, a presidential election that once appeared to favor Obama is now razor close again, and heading toward an unpredictable finish.
Four national polls released their first post-debate findings this week. The Pew Research Center reported that Romney had moved into the lead among likely voters, 49% to 45%. The Gallup Poll reported that Romney held a narrow lead, 49% to 47%. The Rasmussen Poll, which sometimes appears to favor Republicans, was kinder to Obama this time; it reported a tie at 48% each. And Reuters/IPSOS reported a tie at 45%.
The usual words of caution apply: These numbers are fallible snapshots of public opinion, not predictions of election outcomes. All polls come with a margin of error; the Pew survey's margin of 3.4% means that Romney's apparent 4-point lead could be either an even-larger advantage, or a virtual tie.
But when four major polls move in the same direction, it's no mirage. The Romney campaign found new momentum in last week's debate, and Obama hasn't yet stopped it. Moreover, the Pew poll included fascinating data that suggest some of the reasons for Romney's advance.
One was a swing toward the Republican candidate on the issue of jobs, a word Romney used over and over in last week's debate.
When Pew asked voters which candidate would do better on jobs, 49% named Romney against only 41% for Obama. Last month, when Pew asked the same question, the two candidates were tied. And when voters were asked whether they think Obama knows how to turn the economy around, most said he does not, 54% to 44%.
The poll also reported a
notable swing toward Romney among women. In a Pew poll last month, Obama had an 18% advantage among female voters; this week, women were evenly divided, 47% to 47%.
The news wasn't all good for Romney, though. When voters were asked which candidate connects well with ordinary Americans, Obama was still far ahead. But on criteria that have often been more important to voters, such as whether a candidate is a strong leader or knows how to fix the economy, Romney appeared either even or ahead of the incumbent.
And pollsters reported that last week's drop in the unemployment rate to 7.8% didn't appear to help Obama much if at all.
It's hard to know exactly what's driving the shift in momentum we're seeing in the polls. But here's a working theory based on conversations with ordinary voters and strategists in both campaigns.
All summer long, the Obama campaign waged an effective blitz of advertising that made Romney into a caricature of a wealthy conservative with overseas bank accounts and secret tax records.
And Romney, unaccountably, pitched in to help. He delayed
the inevitable release of his tax
returns for months. He staged a Republican convention that reaffirmed his conservative credentials but offered thin gruel for swing voters. And he was caught on videotape dismissing almost half of Americans as people without a sense of personal responsibility.
That made the Obama campaign's task seem easy: keep driving Romney's negatives up.