In keeping with the spirit of LGM on this Fourth day of October 2012, I have a few observations about yesterday’s
As Scott suggested moments ago, and as Silver wrote yesterday, challengers typically do well in the first debate. However, in this case, while it might make it more of a ballgame, it should not make a real difference. Silver offers a lot of sound evidence-based points, as he does, and three are especially pertinent here:
The challenger’s gains have come mainly from undecided voters rather than from the incumbent himself.
No candidate who trailed by as much Romney did heading into the first debate went on to win the election.
There has not been any tendency for the challenger to gain over the remaining weeks of the election.
The average gain by a challenger after the first debate, between 1976 and 2008, has been 2.3% according to Silver. If we narrow the historical range to between 1996 and 2008, the average shift has been 1.4%. Furthermore, if current polling data are to be believed, there are relatively fewer undecideds remaining at this point in the campaign than in previous years. Hence, while the CBS poll of undecided voters has Romney “winning” 46%, Obama 22%, and 32% reckoning it was a draw, I’m relatively sanguine. Assuming a) that this event was the crucial decision rule for this population, and b) the 32% break 50/50, 62% of undecideds were swayed to Romney, while 38% to Obama. Even rounding up to a conservative 2:1 break between Romney and Obama amongst the undecideds, it’s not enough to shift the outcome.
The current RCP national average has Obama 49.1%, Romney 46%. That’s a 3.1% Obama lead (which is one of the more conservative esitmates available). This average suggests 4.9% remain uncedided. If they break 2 to 1 for Romney, (3.3% to Romney, 1.6% to Obama) that leaves a final result of Obama 50.7% to Romney 49.3%. Romney narrows his gap from 3.1% overall to 1.4%: a shift of 1.7%. This is within the averages above: an average shift of 1.4% from 1996 to 2008, to average of 2.3% from 1976-2008.
The third point is also telling: this was Romney’s last chance. Yes, Obama’s conservative strategy basically gave him this game, but at the same time, Obama did not screw up beyond his passivity. While ideally the Democrats use Romney’s ill-conceived line about money and hearts against him early and often, I don’t think that the Romney campaign took anything away from this that they can use against Obama.
But let’s get even more conservative about this. The current (October 4) map at ElectoralVote has four “battleground” states where Obama has a 1% to 5% lead (again based on the most recent poll, so the usual caveats about any single poll apply). These are CO (9), IA (6), VA (13), and FL (29). Let’s assume Obama retains the others where his lead is > 5%, but loses these four on the basis of last night. This assumes a shift of at least 2% in FL and VA, over 3% in CO, and over 4% in IA. Obama still wins the EC 275-263. The current EC map at RCP, not including toss-up states, has Obama on 269 votes in the bag (toss ups include CO, IA, VA and FL I list above, as well as NV, MO, and NC). We can safely assume that Obama will not win MO, but under a worst case scenario, he’ll still pull out one of the remaining states.
Hence, I don’t share the breathless overreaction noted by Scott’s insta-outsourcing of Kuttner last night: “Tonight’s debate did serious damage. There are two more to come. If Obama does not pick up his game, he is a one-term president.” Dude. Chill. A more realistic, sober appraisal is offered by Sargent:
What remains to be seen is whether he conveyed convincingly and affirmatively enough that his plan would engineer a faster rebound and would strengthen the middle class, at a time when voters are already concluding the groundwork has been laid for recovery. That’s what he really needed to do to alter the basic trajectory of a contest that Obama is currently winning. It was unquestionably a good night for Romney, but it’s unclear whether it will produce the big change he needed.
Frankly, I’m far more concerned that my wife just took three of five ‘words with friends’ games from me (following a ten game undefeated run) than I am about the debate last night. The difference is, as I start the next five games, I have a better chance of reversing this tally than Romney does of winning the election based on the debates.