In early June, shortly after President Obama stumbled in a press conference by saying, “the private sector is doing fine,” his senior White House and campaign aides began an e-mail chain among one another. It listed all the other times over the past six years that the media had declared Obama on the ropes, like the time in 2008 that footage leaked of Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright and the time the debt-ceiling deal blew up. As the message bounced from inbox to inbox, the list of setbacks got longer, and the point was unmistakable: everyone needed to keep a little perspective. The previous two weeks in June — with a bad jobs report, a dipping stock market, a teetering E.U. and Obama’s own gaffe — were just a passing phase. Team Obama knew how to bounce back.
It was a morale-building exercise that would have been appropriate to repeat in the past two weeks, since Obama’s disastrous debate in Denver, which has demonstrably shifted both national and swing-state polling in Mitt Romney’s favor. But there were other lessons from that June swoon that can be applied as well. At the time, a senior Obama adviser told me that whatever bad things happened, they could take comfort in one thing: the campaign had polled enough in the swing states to know Obama had a high minimum level of support. He could dip, his campaign believed, but he wasn’t going to collapse.
The past two weeks seem to have borne that out. The slide in support for Obama appears to have leveled off in most of the polls (see here, here, here) right around their June low points. On Wall Street, this floor is called a support level — the point at which demand will prevent further price declines. If one looks at the long-term polling trend in the presidential race, there are two clear stories: Romney has been making gradual gains, and Obama has yet to fall behind enough to clearly prevent him from winning re-election.
That sets the stage for a grand finale. The big questions for the next three weeks are twofold: first, do the final two debates or external events do anything to shift Obama’s support levels or return him to a comfortable lead? And if not, the second question: Is Obama’s floor in swing states, combined with his turnout operation, enough to counteract the Republican enthusiasm advantage and the traditional last-minute boost that challengers get when undecided voters finally make up their minds?
Romney campaign advisers are counting on a late break to drop Obama’s floor. That has been their theory of the race all along, and it is based on historical patterns. In difficult economic times, when many Americans view the country as moving in the wrong direction, undecided voters tend to break at the last minute against the incumbent. The Romney case is hurt by the fact that economic indicators have been improving over the past few months, though they are coming off historical lows. Consumer confidence is up. Home prices are inching back. The number of Americans who think the U.S. is back on the right track is up. The unemployment rate is down slightly. All of these are small gains, but they are all good news for Obama.
The Obama campaign argues the first debate flub will not do lasting damage. After all, the President has rebounded from a poor performance before. The clearest example is the dip that his approval rating took in August and September of 2011 after the debt-ceiling debacle. Obama polled around 40% approval for a few weeks, a reflection of his seeming inability to solve the nation’s problems. His approval rating rebounded when he went on offense in the fall, selling a jobs plan that put Republicans on defense. The hope of the Obama campaign is that the second presidential debate will allow for another comeback. By showing up to fight, and demonstrating that he wants the job again, Obama might eliminate the doubts that now have him scraping his own polling floor.
So keep this in mind as you tune in Tuesday night. It’s a debate that will matter.