BEFORE last week’s bout between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the Washington Post interviewed a number of prominent political scientists on whether presidential debates mattered. The general consensus was “no”, that “few noticeable changes” occur in polling after the debates. Nate Silver, the New York Times’s number cruncher, claimed that if Romney made any gains they would “probably be fairly modest.” Somebody failed to tell this to the American voters.
It’s not that this analysis no longer bears any credence. It does show, however, the magnitude of Romney’s win last week. In the space of 90 minutes, the challenger has thrown the race wide open. A Pew poll earlier this week gave Romney a four point lead – a stunning 12 point shift in a mere matter of days. Rasmussen shows the Republican ahead in 11 key swing states that have a combined 146 electoral college votes. Romney has also taken a 16 point lead with the crucial independent vote – a group of voters Obama won by eight points over John McCain four years ago.
However, the most concerning trend for the Obama campaign has been the unexpected shift with female voters, in particular unmarried women. Before the debate, Obama enjoyed a 19 point lead with unmarried women, who believe that the President supported “issues important to you.” But Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg noted that when it came down to the debate, these voters heard nothing “that was relevant to them. They were not hearing about issues or problems or things that Obama would do that affect their lives.” The President still has time to correct this. But if he fails to, it will jeopardise his hopes for re-election.
Tonight’s vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan provides the Democrats with at least a shot at witnessing some redemption. Biden, though extremely gaffe prone, is a seasoned campaigner and it would be ill-advised for Republicans to make the same mistake as the President and underestimate their opponent. The vice president’s “Scranton Joe” persona, named after his blue collar hometown in Pennsylvania, is often called upon by the administration when it comes to reaching out to middle class voters. However, the vice president’s claim that these voters have been “buried” in the past four years will be exploited ruthlessly.
If campaigns were purely static affairs, heeding the analysis from election forecasters and their tables would be a worthy endeavour. However, campaigns comprise of game-changing events such as poor debate performances and meek diplomatic responses to ransacked embassies. With Romney’s polls at their strongest since February 2011, the glass in front of Obama’s panic alarm remains intact. However, if these numbers hold up for another week, it will only be a matter of time before someone sets off the alarm.
Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based consultant. Follow him on Twitter @ewancwatt