The constant barrage of polls can obscure as much as it illuminates. Is the Public Policy Polling poll showing Mitt Romney up 4 right, or should you believe the Washington Post poll giving President Barack Obama a 3-point edge? Is Gallup’s “likely voter” screen too restrictive, or is it just right? More than anything, just what the heck is going on?
Overall, the presidential race is very tight, but a close look at the numbers shows some momentum for Obama — and that women could well be the key to deciding the election.
Romney’s Initial Gains Fading
Mitt Romney did well in the first debate, gaining about 3 percent in the polls. That was enough to push him into a narrow lead in the RealClearPolitics.com poll average, one that peaked at 1.5 percent.
That lead has faded, however, with Romney today holding a 0.3 percent edge. Obama’s gain of about a point from his nadir is consistent with gains shown by Nate Silver of the New York Times, who shows Obama having gained back about 0.7 percent in the polls. Silver’s model shows Obama with about a 1 percent lead over Romney, but both Silver and RealClearPolitics show a very tight race, one which could swing either way.
Certainly, that’s a comedown for Obama from his position before the first debate, but it’s not disastrous. Romney’s gains have peaked, and are receding; that means that this race is at worst too close to call at this point. At best, it suggests that Obama has some room to gain support back, especially with a strong showing in the two remaining debates.
Romney Gains Among Women
Romney has benefited most from gains among women. The latest USA Today/Gallup poll shows Obama tied among likely female voters in swing states. This mirrors gains seen in the Pew poll from last week.
There’s no clear reason why Romney would be gaining support among women, but one may be the dog that didn’t bark. In the first debate, Romney was asked not one question on women’s rights, birth control, or abortion rights. Romney has equivocated on the Lily Ledbetter Act, supports defunding Planned Parenthood, and has backed extreme anti-choice “personhood” laws. All of those positions are anathema to gaining female support.
Fortunately for Romney, in the first debate he didn’t have to address any of these issues. It would be surprising, however, if he managed to get through the next two debates unscathed. Certainly, Romney may try to obscure the positions he’s taken, just as he did on economics in the first debate — but it seems unlikely that Obama will let him get away with it again.
Last Two Debates Could Be Pivotal
Obama may be slightly ahead, or slightly behind, but either way, this is a very close race, and much will depend on what happens between now and the election.
Obama was pilloried for being too deferential to Romney in the previous debate, and he’s paid a heavy price for it. He’s gone from the clear favorite to win in November to basically a toss-up.
The good news for Obama is that starting tonight, he has the opportunity to change that. In 1984, Ronald Reagan slipped nearly 10 points in the polls after his first debate with Walter Mondale. A strong second debate reversed his slide, and he went on to a historic landslide in November.
Given the closeness of the election, the next two debates could be decisive. If Romney can win handily again, he could regain votes Obama has won back over the past ten days. If Obama wins big, he could erase Romney’s gains from the first debate, and then some.
The presidential race was very close for almost six months, but in the last few weeks before election day, it has become very fluid. Individual polls can cause partisans to breathe easy, or to reach for the smelling salts — but in the end, the aggregate of polls shows a race that is going to come down to the wire.
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