Republican Mitt Romney—considered to be on the verge of irrelevance just weeks ago—swung back into contention after the first presidential debate last week, with three new polls showing the former Massachusetts governor has either pulled even or ahead of President Obama.
The polls all suggest that the debates will play a definitive role in the election, influencing voter perceptions with a suddenness that the steady onslaught of TV, radio and web advertising has not achieved. That breaks with a historical pattern according to the Gallup Organization, which claimed that on-stage duels between the candidates seldom change the course of the race.
But if there’s a lesson from the GOP primary, which featured 26 debates, it’s that performance can be inconsistent and support surprisingly fickle. Much like the baseball playoffs, this election won’t come down to a single game. There are three remaining debates this month—with Vice President Joe Biden facing House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan in the next showdown on Thursday—that could further shake up everything.
Following last week’s debate, Gallup has Romney and Obama in a dead heat with 47 percent, compared to Obama having a 50 percent to 45 percent edge before the two candidates met on-stage in Denver. Rasmussen—which has shown less volatility during the campaign—reports a tie at 48 percent among likely voters post-debate.
And in the biggest shift thus far, Pew Research on Monday has Romney up 49 percent to 45 percent with likely voters, a dramatic reversal from Obama’s 51 percent to 43 percent lead last month. The two candidates are even among registered voters at 46 percent.
Both Gallup and Pew indicate that Obama’s dismal performance in the debate and Romney’s repeated commitments to not raise taxes on the middle class impacted how voters view the candidates.
Romney has a seven-point advantage on “new ideas” and leads on both job creation and deficit reduction, according to the Pew survey that also shows him closing the gender gap among women with Obama while simultaneously energizing his base in an election where turnout matters.
“The poll finds Romney’s supporters far more engaged in the campaign than they were in September,” Pew wrote in a summary of its findings. “Fully 82 percent say they have given a lot of thought to the election, up from 73 percent in September. The new survey finds that Romney supporters hold a 15-point advantage over Obama backers on this key engagement measure. Supporters on both sides were about even in September.”
All these polls contain some caveats: Results vary based on how party identification gets weighted; Obama still appears the favorite in terms of electoral votes; and the predictions market Intrade assigns him a 63 percent chance of winning.
The debate reversed momentum for Obama, but it wasn’t a crash-and-burn. The September jobs report released Friday showed the unemployment rate fell to 7.8 percent, a positive headline for the president.
But more importantly, the Republican primary shows just how fleeting a post-debate bump can be. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich lit a fire beneath his campaign in two South Carolina debates last January, surging from a double-digit deficit in the polls to beat Romney in the Palmetto State’s primary. Meanwhile, bizarre performances by Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the debates quickly capsized his campaign.
“With a month to go before Election Day, the outcome of the 2012 presidential election is still very much in doubt,” Gallup concluded. “That certainly raises the stakes for both candidates in the next two debates, Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.”