Polling Passions: How to Deal with Campaign Vertigo

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's stump speech notes sit on a podium during a campaign rally on Oct. 6, 2012 in Apopka, Fla.

Throughout much of September, polls showed the incumbent President with a clear lead, sometimes as much as eight points nationally. Then he lost the first debate, and things began to change. First, the national polls showed a tie, then a slight advantage for the challenger, albeit inside the margin of error. After the second debate, CNN reported that the challenger “appears to be holding the ground he gained against President Bush after the first presidential debate, according to a recent poll.” Of course, the challenger, John Kerry, went on to lose the 2004 election by 2 points. George W. Bush was reelected to a second term.

Now here we are, eight years later, in October of 2012. A first debate disaster for President Obama has eliminated his lead in national polls. Democrats are wringing their hands. Swing state polls show a similar narrowing. Romney is finally hitting his stride after months of a struggles. The suspense builds. So what happens next?

(MORE: Obama, Romney Twist Two Crucial Issues in First Debate)

As Sasha Issenberg has pointed out, the best people to answer that question work for the Obama and Romney campaigns. They sit on an enormous amount of expensive and current data about where this race stands, and what may happen over the coming weeks. But they aren’t talking. So we are left with far less targeted public polls, which offer intermittent snapshots of the electorate, but cannot predict at this point the outcome of such a close race.

But for those who yearn for more certainty than that with less than 30 days to go, here are some other things to chew on as you click refresh on the RealClearPolitics polling page:

–The first debate was bad for Obama. Maybe even worse than if Obama had fallen “off the stage,” as his spokeswoman Jen Psaki had foreshadowed. But the first debate will not be the final word. Over the next 13 days, there will be three more debates, two presidential, and one vice presidential. All those images you have of the first debate are about to be replaced by new images. This is probably good for Obama, but only if he can fix his first debate performance.

(MORE: The Battle for Ohio: Can Obama Keep His Lead?)

–Both campaigns have said from the beginning that this will be a close election. And neither campaign has ever suggested that this was spin. The electorate really is closely divided, and hardened, and the decision will come down to a handful of swing states. That’s one of the reasons that all the crowing about Obama’s advantage in September was what it seemed. When people answer pollsters they are expressing how they feel at the moment, not necessarily how they will feel on Election Day. So the polls tend to bounce around, but they are most likely to settle where they have been consistently all year, within the margin of error. Which is to say, Obama may be crashing on InTrade, but that crash says more about the wisdom of InTrade than any sharp shift in the fundamentals.

–Political reporting always errs on the side of overselling shifts in the race. If there is a media bias, this is it. How many times this year has one candidate or the other been on the ropes, in crisis, losing ground, gaining ground, failing, fumbling, etc. It’s not that mistakes didn’t happen. It’s just that their import was oversold so that the press had something to talk about. A stable race never sold many newspapers. But that is pretty much what we have had, despite hundreds of millions of spending and many sleepless nights. Don’t believe the day-to-day hype.

–In a close race, the ground game matters. For the most part, the ground operations of both campaigns are a black box. Reporters don’t have access to the real data. But judging simply from time, investment and historical patterns, Obama as the incumbent should have an advantage here.

(MORE: Fact Checking And the False Equivalence Dilemma)

–In a close race, enthusiasm matters. Given external headwinds, the enthusiasm should be on the challenger’s side. In the last week, polls have begun to reflect that. But Romney needs to sustain it. And Obama has a lot of time between now and Election Day to remind voters that he is not the guy who showed up (or didn’t) at the debate in Denver.

–External events matter a great deal. The terrorist attack in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens clearly hurt Obama’s foreign policy rating. Another attack could hurt more, just as a special forces strike against the people who killed Stevens could give the president a boost. Economic confidence is up significantly from its August doldrums. Obama’s job approval has yet to dip from his debate failure. Americans’ views of whether the country is on the right track or the wrong track have dramatically improved since August. When all is said and done, it’s possible–but by no means certain–that the September jobs report had a bigger impact on the election than the first debate did. By the same token, any major economic swoon between now and November could undermine Obama’s chances.

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–The Romney campaign is doing what it always said it would do: Turn the debates into the single most important moment of the campaign. The fact is that the Obama campaign is now playing on the Romney field. The future performance of both candidates will be crucial.

This may not be enough to settle anyone’s stomachs. But that’s how elections go. Democracy is not supposed to be predictable. Victory is supposed to be earned. And the people are allowed to change their minds right up until election day.

MORE: Lessons Learned from Watching the Presidential Debate–On Mute