We were told that debates can’t alter a presidential contest. But what voters are telling pollsters completely contradicts that.
In the hours that followed the surreal role reversal in last week’s presidential debate, liberal political scientists and statisticians rushed to the public square to insist that television scraps of the like rarely reorganize contests. Breathless and harried the lot of them, these number-crunchers swore the fundamentals of the race would remain: President Barack Obama would preserve his lead in spite of challenger Mitt Romney‘s silver-tongued swipes.
But the sobering truth is that debates are something more than shallow theater and can dramatically shape candidate perceptions. A spate of new surveys out this week found voter preferences have swung wildly in the days since Romney scored his debate upset, with the Republican jumping into the lead in Real Clear Politics’ polling index for the first time in the race.
Gallup found 72% of debate watchers thought Romney won, a full 52-point spread between the challenger and incumbent. That’s the single largest debate deficit ever recorded by the polling firm, the previously largest margin won by Bill Clinton in George HW Bush’s infamous “wristwatch-checking” performance.
Pew likewise tracked a draw among registered voters, though Romney had managed to build a 4-point lead over Obama when the sample was limited only to those respondents likely to vote in the November contest. Rasmussen’s latest daily tracking also measured support evenly split between the two men, at 48%, down from a modest upswing for the president.
But the state of play across the map is similarly promising for Republicans. Surveys of seven of the nine battleground states have been released in the period since last week’s debate. In five of those seven, Romney leads the president and trails only within the margin of error in the remaining two. That’s a distinctly winnable race.
The salience of contemporary presidential debates is largely a function of a hyperactive media environment that elevates to parallel significance a fumbled joke with a fumbled economy or a declaration of war. The daily grind – the painful minutiae of a horse race in which reporters and aides obsess over minor stump missteps – don’t drive the sentiment of ordinary voters. Stumbles of the pedestrian variety, like Romney’s recent birth certificate jest or Joe Biden’s largely forgotten invitation to a wheel chair-bound man to stand, don’t inform voter views.
Instead, it’s the big moments: the historic wins and losses, the inability of an incumbent president to make a serious case for re-election. For Romney, who has been trailing the president in polling for much of the race, the implication of a debate-wrought surge cannot be overstated.
The candidate who led in the national polling aggregate after the first debate has won the White House in every race since Jimmy Carter booted Gerald Ford. This same axiom later displaced the Man from Plains just four years later, even as he trailed Ronald Reagan by a modest one point in post-debate polling.
For this operative, who labored for much of the last 18 months to ensure Romney never clinched the nomination, it was a bitter-sweet moment to watch as the Bay Stater lanced the president. I spent many a primary debate night working into the early morning hours, shuffling embarrassing Romney exchanges and news clips to anyone willing to hear the spin.
It was of no consequence that my candidate, Jon Huntsman, didn’t win, ever. What did matter was that Romney didn’t.
But last week was different. It was historic, and the polls overwhelmingly reflect it.
Originally published by The Guardian on October 11, 2012.