As I mentioned in Part I, there is mounting evidence that the first presidential debate initiated (or at least correlated) with a preference cascade for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. First let’s look at the evidence which suggests this might very well have happened. The first presidential debate was on October 3rd, 2012. So in order to assess the debate as an inflection point, we want to look at polling on or before October 2nd on the one hand in comparison to polling on or after October 4th. With tracking polls we will want to compare polling on October 2nd with polling reported all they way out to October 10th in the case of 7-day averages. Finally, we will want to look at the current polls. Our questions: 1) Was there a Romney surge post-debate? 2) Has that surge continued/snowballed or has it receded? I have included all polls cited in the RCP average where there is at least a poll before the first debate and a poll after the first debate. Ideally, we will look at polls immediately before, immediately after, and current polling.
This table depicts the Romney deficit or surplus in support for president in polling before the debate, after the debate, and currently. The trend columns indicate the difference in Romney support between the pre-debate numbers and the post-debate numbers as well as the pre-debate numbers and the current numbers. A positive number (green) in the trend column means that Romney has gained support between the two polling periods. Note, I compare within polls so that we can observe trends irrespective of the sampling technique and likely voter screen differences between the included polls.
One fact that should be immediately apparent is that there has unquestionably been a Romney surge. No poll included above shows Obama gaining, within their poll, over the last four weeks. The best Obama does is in the Hartford/Courant and IBD/TPP polls, both of which show no change in the race. Among the polls that have a pre-debate poll and a current poll on the race, the average Romney surge is 3.7%. That’s strong evidence that Romney’s surge out of the first debate has been durable — not a bump based on favorable media coverage. Note, the media consensus over the last 3 debates (1 VP, 2 Presidential) have been that the Obama/Biden ticket “won” the debate (at least narrowly). Despite this, Romney has seen his surge in the polls stabilize. In fact, it is even better than that for Romney if we focus on the polls that have a pre-debate, post-debate, and current poll in the above table. Those five polls are here:
Note that among these polls, the trend to the current polling (which has baked into it the VP and 2nd presidential debate performances) from the pre-first debate polls is larger than the trend to the polling immediately after the debate. The average gain from the pre-debate polls to the immediate post-debate polls is 4%. However, the average gain from the pre-debate polls to the current polls is 5.33%. Romney is doing better now than he was in the immediate aftermath of his unamimous first debate victory by a little less than 1.5% points — a 26% improvement on his post-debate surge. This suggests that despite two Obama/Biden “victories” in the debates, the Romney surge has, in fact, deepened. Why might this be? A big part of the story is the misunderstanding of what the first debate performance was about. Alot of the debate analysis has focused on “winning on points”…in other words, analysts have looked at the debates as a competition. If one participant “out scores” the other, then that participant won. The consensus after the first debate was that Romney won — i.e. out-performed Obama. He certainly did that, but that is not what instigated the surge towards Romney in the polls. What instigated the surge was a preference cascade – an inflection point that established Romney as a credible alternative to Obama.
What many missed in the coverage of Obama’s lead up until the first debate was the fact that, despite that lead, Obama never topped 50% in the RCP average. Let’s look at the trend here:
As you can see, most of the Obama’s lead in the RCP average was built on depressing Romney’s numbers below 47%…not on Obama getting above 50%. Only at one time in the race over the last 6 months did Obama approach 50%, and that was a consequence of the bump he recieved after the Democratic National Convention. Those numbers quickly dissapated, with Obama returning to that 47% equilibrium. In contrast, Romney’s numbers are improving even 2 weeks out from that debate performance. The answer to the puzzle lies in this observation: A majority of the voting public had already decided they did not support President Obama. What they had not decided, before the debate, was whether or not they could support Romney as an acceptable alternative. What that first debate performance accomplished for Romney wasn’t a victory on points — it wouldn’t have mattered if Obama had performed well (as he did in the second and third debates). What mattered is that Romney painted himself as a viable alternative to Obama — and that’s exactly what a majority of the electorate is looking for. And that’s why things are looking up for Romney…and very gloomy for President Obama. And it is also why the subsequent debates and debate performances have failed to slow/suspend the Romney surge.