Heading into the first debate, Obama holds a modest lead with approximately 49 percent of the vote.
In the last forty-eight hours, 14 national polls show Obama leading by 3.6 points, 49.1 to 45.5 for Romney. Is that tightening? Perhaps only 3 of the 13 national polls suggest clear movement in Romney’s direction, including two released today: NBC/WSJ, which showed Obama’s lead among likely voters falling from 5 to 3 points, and a National Journal survey showed a tied race. The latter poll would be especially significant if it could be compared to the prior National Journal poll, which showed Obama leading by 7 points, but tonight’s poll was conducted by a different firm than the one from last week, making it hard to render a direct comparison.
If we take the average of national polls at its word, then the race has tightened by about a point over the last week. As mentioned yesterday, most of this movement appears to be the result of Romney voters returning to his column, which is less significant than either a decrease in Obama’s support or an increase in Romney’s support beyond 47 percent—his ceiling so far in national polls. Further cutting against the significance of a shift in Romney’s direction is the absence of commensurate movement in the battleground states, at least not yet. Over the last 48 hours, surveys have shown Obama leading by 11 in Nevada, 9 in Virginia, 2 in North Carolina, and 15 in New Hampshire. It’s not that these polls are dead-on, it’s just we wouldn’t expect too many of them in a two or three point race.
But there's no sense in spending too much time figuring out whether Obama's up by 3 or 5 points in the national popular vote, if for no other reason than the debates are about to wipe the polling slate clean. And whether Obama’s up by 3 or 5 points, the fundamentals of the race remain essentially unaltered. Early voting is already underway and with Obama at 49 percent of the vote, Romney’s chances are in jeopardy if he can’t move Obama supporters back into the undecided column soon. Romney is certainly a capable debater who appears to have invested the time and energy necessary to give the performance of his life, but tonight’s debate is not a perfect opportunity for creating a big change in the race. Indeed, as a forth-coming piece argues, there is a case that the debates have never brought about the sort of shift that Romney is counting on. Even so, there is no question that tonight’s debate is Romney’s best and perhaps last chance to rejigger an exceptionally stable contest.