Mitt Romney heads into the first presidential debate Wednesday night facing higher stakes than President Obama. Mr. Romney is trailing in national polls by between 3 and 4 percentage points – and more in the battleground states. The debate in Denver presents a huge opportunity, before millions of TV viewers, to change the trajectory of the race.
Why is Romney in this predicament, after running almost neck-and-neck against Mr. Obama for much of the general election campaign? The latest polls provide clues.
“Voters remain overwhelmingly pessimistic about a still sluggish economy, yet appear poised to reelect President Barack Obama because of perceptions that he understands their lives better than Republican nominee Mitt Romney and would do more to favor the middle class rather than the very wealthy,” writes Mark Blumenthal, senior polling editor of the Huffington Post.
The latest Quinnipiac national poll, released Tuesday, shows Obama ahead by 4 percentage points. The Gallup tracking poll shows Obama up by 6 points; Rasmussen has him up by 1, within the margin of error.
On Sept. 5, Obama and Romney were exactly tied in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, at 46.8 percent each. After the Democratic National Convention, which ended the next day, Obama registered a small bounce and has never looked back.
“After their convention, the Democrats closed the enthusiasm gap in most polls with Republicans, which would then give Obama a boost,” says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on polling at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. “Though I still think it’s a close contest.”
All along, she says, the Obama vote has been more pro-Obama than anti-Romney, whereas the Romney vote has been more anti-Obama than pro-Romney.
Analysts see additional reasons for the shift in the race:
There are simply more Democrats than Republicans. That was already the case in 2008, and as the nation becomes increasingly diverse ethnically and racially, that builds the Democratic base, since these minority groups tend to vote Democratic. African-Americans will vote nearly totally for Obama; Hispanics, the fastest-growing minority group in the country, back Obama 2 to 1, as they did in 2008.
In short, the Republican Party has a demographic crisis on its hands, which will only get worse if serious action isn’t taken. If Romney loses, watch for a period of soul-searching about minorities after the election.
Voters tend to “come home” as Election Day nears. As expected, people who don’t consider themselves solid Democrats or Republicans but lean in one or the other direction are starting to make firm decisions about their vote – and they’re reverting to their usual choice.
“We know most people who say they’re independent really aren’t,” says Ms. Bowman. “They usually lean more to one party or the other, and ‘go home’ as we get closer to Election Day. That leaves a very small number of undecideds.”
The snowball effect. Voters like to back a winner, and polls show voters now clearly believe Obama will win reelection.
“After a challenging period for Romney, registered voters by 63-31 percent expect Obama to win re-election, his widest advantage in expectations in ABC News/Washington Post polls to date,” writes Gary Langer, who runs the ABC/Post poll. “A year ago, in sharp contrast, Americans by an 18-point margin thought he’d lose.”
Online betting markets agree. On Intrade, for example, Obama has a 74 percent chance of winning.
The “47 percent” comment. One area of heated debate among political analysts is whether Romney’s comment about “the 47 percent” has contributed to his decline in the polls. Last month, a videotape surfaced showing Romney at a private fundraiser in May, saying that the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax see themselves as “victims” and aren’t likely to vote for him, “and so,” he said, “my job is not to worry about those people.”
Romney has tried mightily to convince voters that he hasn’t written off nearly half the electorate; in one ad, he talks about his “compassion” for those who are struggling. But he is up against a mighty media echo chamber that has replayed the original comment over and over. On Monday, a Pew Research Center poll showed how damaging the comment has been to Romney.
“Mitt Romney’s statement that 47 percent of the public is dependent on government has registered strongly with voters,” the Pew report says.
Fully two-thirds of voters know that it was Romney who made the statement, and among those voters, 55 percent reacted negatively, versus 23 percent who saw it positively, according to Pew. Most damaging to Romney is the reaction of independent voters. Some 55 percent of independents who are aware of Romney’s comment say they had a negative reaction to it, while only 18 percent viewed it positively.
But Gallup asked voters if the 47 percent comment has made them more or less likely to vote for Romney, and a plurality said it made no difference.
Indeed, analysts say it’s nearly impossible to isolate an individual event or comment as being decisive in turning a race.
“Voters are confronting a big wide Mississippi River of information flowing at them, and as a consequence it’s difficult to isolate the effect of any one thing,” says John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University in Washington. “That said, there’s no question it’s been several weeks of relatively bad news for the Romney campaign. It hasn’t enabled him to close the post-convention gap. If anything, that gap has grown.”
Bowman of AEI has been closely following the polls on the 47 percent comment, and also can’t say for certain that it has been decisive in Romney’s overall slide.
But when all is said and done, she suspects that “47 percent” could have been instrumental.
“I personally think it has had an effect,” she says. “Sometimes a campaign moment crystallizes doubts that people have had, and this may be one of those cases.”