Swing state polls: Is Mitt Romney running out of time?

President Obama's edge in key swing states appears to be growing. And while he may only hold single-digit leads, it's getting harder to see how Mitt Romney can reverse the current trajectory.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate campaigns in Fairfax, Va., Thursday.

Should we just call this thing for President Obama now?

We’re kidding, of course (hold your outraged comments, Romney supporters!). But as the old saying goes, there’s some truth in every jest. It now appears safe to say that Mr. Obama did, in fact, get a real bounce out of the Democratic convention – and, even more important, that bounce is showing up in key swing states. According to a new set of NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls, Obama is now leading Mitt Romney by 7 points in Ohio and 5 points in Florida and Virginia.

True, that’s just one set of polls. But even the aggregate polling out there is in Obama’s favor. The RealClearPolitics polling average right now has Obama up by 4.2 percentage points in Ohio, 1.3 points in Florida, and 0.4 points in Virginia. The last is an admittedly scant edge, but the Virginia average incorporates more outdated data, since there have been fewer recent polls to draw on.

At the very least, Mr. Romney needs to win two of the three states. And while Obama’s lead in those states is no one’s definition of insurmountable, it is getting harder and harder to see how Romney can turn things around.

According to the NBC/WSJ/Marist polls, the number of undecided voters in the swing states at this point is downright tiny. In Ohio, for example, just 6 percent were undecided – which means that if Romney were to wind up winning every one of those undecided voters, he would still fall short.

And as MSNBC’s First Read points out, a lot of those undecided voters probably aren’t going to bother casting ballots in the end. They write: “These are voters who simply aren’t paying attention…. they seem disengaged from the campaign, and they don’t call themselves enthusiastic about the election. They are probably NOT voters.”

In other words, we’ve now reached the point in the campaign when opinions have become fairly set. Most people who are actually going to vote already know who they’re voting for – and barring some big, unexpected event, they’re not going to change their minds.

Adding to the cake-is-baked dynamic is the fact that early voting is actually about to begin in many swing states. In Ohio, for example, early voting begins Oct. 2 – and roughly a quarter of the NBC/WSJ/Marist poll respondents in Ohio said they planned to vote before Election Day. In North Carolina, absentee ballots are already available, and they will become available next week in Virginia and Wisconsin.

But what about the debates? Can’t Romney turn things around with a surprisingly strong performance – or maybe some well-timed zingers?

The short answer: probably not. As a piece by John Sides in the Washington Monthly notes, history shows that debates tend to have very little effect on the trajectory of a presidential race. At most, they have appeared to move the needle a point or two. Significantly, all those famous debate “moments” – Gerald Ford saying there is “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”; Michael Dukakis saying he would still oppose the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered; George H. W. Bush looking at his watch – had almost no impact whatsoever on the polls.

As Mr. Sides writes: “Scholars who have looked most carefully at the data have found that, when it comes to shifting enough votes to decide the outcome of the election, presidential debates have rarely, if ever, mattered.”

Obama's advisers have actually been trying to lower expectations for the debates, saying they expect Romney will do well, and may even get a bounce. And going in as an underdog – and one who, as we saw during the GOP primaries, is capable of very strong debate performances – may give Romney an advantage.

But for Romney to catapult into the lead in the polls based on the debates alone would be a historical anomaly. Sure, being perceived as the "winner" of the debates might help, a bit. Among other things, it would give the Romney campaign – and its supporters – a psychological lift.

But as Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, put it bluntly on MSNBC Friday morning: “The person who’s leading now – going into the debates – usually wins.”

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