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Posted by on Oct 3, 2012 in 2012 Elections, Media, Politics | 2 comments

A REALLY Close Horse Race: Obama Romney Polls Greatly Tighten Heading into First High-Stakes Debate

[EDITOR’s NOTE: The wrong byline was up on this post for a few minutes due to a system hiccup. We regret the error.]

It’s a squeaker, kind of

The latest poll by NPR and its bipartisan polling team [pdf] shows President Obama with a 7-point lead among likely voters nationally and a nearly identical lead of 6 points in the dozen battleground states where both campaigns are spending most of their time and money. …NPR

NPR’s latest poll — conducted by Democracy Corps and Resurgent Republic — indicates that the debates could decide the election, according to commentators on NPR early this morning. The numbers in the final polls before the first debate?

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney [is] very much within striking distance of the incumbent as the two men begin a series of three debates Wednesday in Denver. ...NPR

NPR’s poll is loudly and clearly “impartial” — conducted by two credible political analysts, one from each party — and is as even-handed in its “sampling” as it can be. And, in a change from most recent elections, many former Republicans have become “independents.”

Ayres, the Republican half of the team, noted that the actual electorate in November may not have as many Democrats as this NPR poll’s likely voter sample, which he called “a best-case scenario” for the president’s party.

“When you sample voters over time, you inevitably get varying proportions of Democrats and Republicans in the sample. It’s nothing nefarious, just the vagaries of sampling,” Ayres said. “This sample ended up with seven points more Democrats than Republicans. In 2008, there were seven points more Democrats than Republicans in the electorate, according to exit polls, But in 2004, there were equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.”

If this year’s voters were to split evenly again between the two major parties, Romney would have an advantage. The NPR poll found him a 4-point favorite among independents.

Most observers expect this year’s party ratio to be somewhere between the Democratic tilt of 2008 and the even split of 2004 (which recurred in the midterm elections of 2010). Stan Greenberg, the Democratic member of the polling team, said polling this year has generally found fewer people self-identifying with the GOP.

“They’re moving into the independent category,” Greenberg said, “where also if you look at the brand position of the Republican Party and Democratic Party, the Republican Party favorability has been dropping throughout this whole period.” …NPR

Cross-posted from Prairie Weather

UPDATE A variety of new polls confirm this finding: the race is very close and the debates could change current trending.
First Read provides the larger context:

*** Why tonight’s debate could be so crucial: After a slew of new NBC/WSJ polls released over the past 12 hours, here’s where the presidential contest stands right before tonight’s first debate: President Obama holds a narrow and tightening national lead over Mitt Romney among likely voters, 49%-46%. It’s also narrow and tight in the battleground states of Florida (where it’s Obama 47%, Romney 46%) and Virginia (Obama 48%, Romney 46%). But in the battleground of Ohio, the president enjoys a substantial advantage, 51%-43%. So Romney is both so close and yet so far away. It’s extremely difficult — though not impossible — for Romney to get to 270 electoral votes without Ohio. It’s also difficult for Romney to win the presidency when he trails Obama by a 48%-35% margin in the national NBC/WSJ poll on which candidate is better prepared to lead to the country for the next four years, as well when the “47%” comment has taken such a toll on him. And that’s why tonight’s debate could be so crucial to the presidential contest. It very well could be Romney’s last chance to change the trajectory of the race. And it gives Obama, whose 49% approval rating is at re-elect level, the opportunity to shut off his opponent’s last path to victory.

*** Why the NBC/WSJ poll is mostly good news for Obama: In fact, the best news for Romney in the national NBC/WSJ poll is his likely-voter number. But the rest is good news for Obama. According to the survey, 44% believe that the economy will improve in the next 12 months — that’s up two points from the last NBC/WSJ survey, eight points since August and a whopping 17 points since July. What’s more, 57% think that the U.S. economy is recovering, versus 39% who disagree with that notion. And four in 10 now say the country is headed in the right direction, which is the highest percentage on this question since June 2009. Given the increased economic optimism, Obama and Romney are nearly tied on which candidate would better handle the economy, with 45% picking Romney and 42% choosing Obama. But the president leads Romney on almost all other issues and character traits — looking out for the middle class, handing the situation in the Middle East, handling immigration, dealing with Medicare, being a good commander in chief, handling foreign policy, and dealing with taxes. Romney, meanwhile, holds the edge on dealing with the federal budget deficit and dealing with the economic challenges that the U.S. faces from China. All of these numbers explain why Obama’s three-point lead looks so commanding.

*** Why the race is closer among likely voters: So why is the national race so close among likely voters (49%-46% versus Obama’s 51%-44% lead among registered voters)? We have a two-word answer for you: voter interest. Among the full universe of registered voters expressing the highest interest in the election, Obama and Romney are essentially tied, with Obama at 49% and Romney at 48%. And two key pillars of Obama’s political coalition — Latinos and young voters — are much less interested in the election than they were in 2008. “That helps to explain why it’s close among likely voters,” says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D). These numbers suggest that Romney would benefit from a low-turnout election, while Obama would benefit from higher turnout. Again, the cliché is true — it all comes down to turnout. By the way, our national NBC/WSJ poll defines a likely voter as someone who registers a “9” or “10” in election interest on a 10-point scale AND who voted in 2008 and/or 2010. For younger Americans who weren’t of age to vote in ’08 or ’10, they must register as an “8,” “9,” or “10” in interest.

Gallup finds Romney has an economic edge going into the debate:

As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney prepare to discuss domestic issues in Wednesday’s first presidential debate, Americans continue to give Romney at least a slight edge in terms of which presidential candidate is better able to handle the economy. However, Romney’s advantage has decreased in comparison to earlier in the campaign.

Romney also fares better than Obama when Americans are asked to say whether the economy will be better or worse in four years if each is elected. Overall, 50% say the economy will be better if Romney is elected and 35% worse, for a net score of +15. Obama’s net score on the same question is +8, with 48% predicting the economy would be better in four years if he is re-elected and 40% saying it will be worse.

The Huffington Post notes how polls are narrowing in the battleground states — the states that many Democrats had pointed to where Obama showed a significant lead. The lead is shrinking:

As President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney prepare to face off in their first televised debate Wednesday night, a new batch of polls shows a slight narrowing in Obama’s lead in two critical battleground states.

Getting the most attention are three new polls conducted by NBC News, The Wall Street Journal and Marist College that show Obama maintaining a wide lead in Ohio but indicate a slightly tightening race in Florida and Virginia, two must-win states for Romney.

Marist’s polls use live interviewers to call random samples of voters on both landline and mobile phones, and its latest surveys were conducted from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1.

In Florida, the new NBC/WSJ/Marist poll gives Obama a one-point edge over Romney (47 to 46 percent). A new Suffolk University poll released on Tuesday gave Obama an only slightly larger, three-point advantage (46 to 43 percent).

Over the last two weeks, nine surveys conducted using a variety of different methods in Florida have all shown Obama with more support than Romney, but the margins on three surveys this week have been collectively closer (1 to 3 percentage points) than those the week before (3 to 9 percentage points).

The HuffPost Pollster tracking model for Florida, based on all public polling, shows Obama’s lead over Romney narrowing slightly, from a peak of just of better than three percentage points on Sept. 20 to just over two percentage points Wednesday. Although the model indicates that Obama’s lead remains statistically meaningful, the narrower margin moves Florida back into the range HuffPost characterizes as a toss-up.
Go to the link to read the rest.

What does this mean? The closeness of the race going into the debate is good news for Mitt Romney, since as Nate Silver notes, the first debate often helps the challenger. If so, there could be flip in who is ahead in coming days:

Conventional wisdom holds that the first presidential debate offers an especially good opportunity for the challenging candidate, who for the first time gets to stand on a literal public stage, and a proverbial level playing field, with the incumbent president.

As much as we like to debunk the conventional wisdom at FiveThirtyEight, this hypothesis has the ring of empirical truth to it. There are no guarantees for Mitt Romney, and if he makes gains in the polls following Wednesday night’s debate in Denver, they will probably be fairly modest. But if historical precedent is any guide, he is more likely than not to see his standing improve at least some.

After some analysis (which needs to be read in full) the usually spot-on Silver concludes:

The tendency for the challenger’s numbers to improve has been more robust, however. The only year in which the challenger lost a material amount of ground was in 1992, an unusual case in which both Mr. Bush and Bill Clinton lost ground relative to H. Ross Perot.

But here’s the bad news for Mr. Romney: no candidate who trailed by as much he did heading into the first debate went on to win the election. In the two cases where the lead reversed after the debate, 1980 and 2000, the trailing candidate was down only one or two points in the polls. The FiveThirtyEight “now-cast,” conversely, pegs Mr. Romney’s deficit at about 5 points instead. (Other methods put it at between three and four points.)

More bad news for Mr. Romney: although there has been a tendency for the challenging candidate to gain ground immediately after the first debate, there has not been any tendency for the challenger to gain over the remaining weeks of the election. On average during these years, the challenging candidate trailed by 1.5 percentage points in polls conducted just after the first debate — and the challenger eventually lost the election, on average, by 1.4 percentage points, a nearly identical margin.

All of these conclusions are based on a small sample size, and so they ought to be interpreted with some caution. But two basic and common-sensical ideas ought to hold.

First, the debate is an excellent opportunity for Mr. Romney: probably not to draw the race into a tie or take the lead, but at least to narrow his deficit.

Second, if Mr. Romney does not take advantage of it, he will be in some trouble.

Photo: Cheryl Ann Quigley /