After a wave of national polls showed a 2-to-4 point lead for the president, the Romney comeback narrative is already building. But is it too soon?
Well, that doesn't scream tightening to me. The CNN poll could be a sign of tightening, but it's also the only poll shifted that clearly in Romney’s direction.
This is about the very best case on behalf of tightening. In part because the CNN poll has such a recent sample (Sep 28-30), I elected to use the most recent results from the trackers, rather than the most recent completely independent sample. If completely independent samples are used (like last Monday's Gallup poll), the difference actually narrows. And the RAND poll doesn't exactly show a full point of tightening either, Romney's gain is mainly due to rounding. So... the best case for tightening is really quite poor.
Given the limited amount of data supporting a shift, it would be wise to wait at least another day or two before re-characterizing the state of the race, especially since plenty of other pollsters will weigh in between now and the debates.
That said: if the CNN poll is a harbinger and, in fact, the race has tightened, that would represent a predictable return to the fundamentals, not a fundamental shift in the race.
Consider this framework for interpreting the national polls from the Daily Breakdown on September 25th:
The race is likely tighten, if for no other reason than because Romney’s still short of 47 percent, which, in my view, is probably his floor given the president’s disapproval rating. But the margin is somewhat less important than whether Obama falls beneath his reelect number. If likely voter surveys show Obama around 49 percent with Romney behind by a discernible margin heading into early voting, the president is going to get reelected whether Romney’s at 43, 45, or 47 percent. If Obama does fall clearly beneath 49 percent, then we’re looking for Romney to exceed 47 percent, which to date has looked like his floor based on Obama’s disapproval rating, but also his ceiling in national polls.
Even if Obama's lead has shrunk in recent polls, it's important to emphasize that Obama retains 49 or 50 percent in every recent survey. Instead, the tightening is mainly due to latent Romney supporters returning to his column, leaving him with about 47 percent in the most recent polls, and that should not be interpreted as evidence of a fundamental shift in his direction.
Romney reached 47 percent following the RNC and Obama’s disapproval rating remains around 47 percent. Given that Obama never inched past 53 percent of the vote, there was never cause to believe that these voters were seriously open to voting for Obama. As a result, Romney is quite likely to jump to 47 percent, even though many of these Republican-tilting, Obama-doubting, undecided voters may hold reservations about Romney.
Not only is Romney’s resurgence consistent with the basic contours of the race, it’s also consistent with history. The polls tend to close over the final month, especially when the challenger trails after the in-party convention when a disproportionate share of the challenging party’s voters seem to characterize themselves as undecided. According to Nate Silver, the challenger takes about 75 percent of the outstanding voters over the final 45 days of the campaign, and that would produce a 2.7-point victory for Obama, 50.6 to 47.9 for Romney (provided one assumed that Obama led by 5 points, 49.5 to 44.5 as of last week).
So it would not be surprising if Romney has returned to 47 percent. More surprising (at least to me) would be the timing of Romney's possible resurgence. There was actually a (once) forthcoming post poised to argue that Romney would return to 46 or 47 percent following the first debate, which has often allows challengers to reclaim latent supporters lost after the in-party convention. Why would Romney win back most of his supporters right now? It’s unclear. Perhaps the end of Obama's DNC bounce was delayed for a week or two by the "47 percent" gaffe?
Regardless of where Romney stands right now, Romney's critical task is to advance beyond 47 percent of the vote and push the president back under 49. After Romney's first 47 percent, every additional vote becomes more and more difficult for the Republican nominee. At this point, voters like the president and they’re only ambivalent about his performance (they don’t disapprove, even if they don't approve). Depending on the poll, many of these voters have an unfavorable impression of Romney and nearly all of them believe that he would support the wealthy or doubt whether he understands the middle class. Given these sizable and persistent character questions, it remains unclear whether Romney can advance beyond 47 percent without convincing voters to rethink their initial views of his candidacy. Of course, it doesn't really matter whether Romney can make his way up to 47.6 in the RCP average if Obama continues to hold 49 percent of the vote or more.
What might be most important, however, is the inverse relationship between Romney's strength in the pre-debate polls and expectations for a post-debate bounce. If polls over the next forty-eight hours confirm that Romney has made gains over the last week, then expectations for a Romney bounce should diminish, given the shrinking pool of latent, undecided Romney supports. Should the next forty-eight hours pour cold water on the incipient evidence of Romney gains, then Romney should be expected to make more substantial gains following the debate. Either way, if Romney isn't holding at least 46 percent of the vote next week, he won't be on track.
Also, I'm taking questions on Reddit today at 11AM. We'll see how that goes.