The Debate Expectations Game
How Romney botched it and Obama played it perfectly. By Michelle Cottle.
Is there anyone left out there who hasn’t yet offered Mitt Romney advice on his upcoming debates? Anyone at all? You there, back in the corner Tweeting about Honey Boo Boo: Any words of wisdom for Mitt? If so, speak right on up, because the political world has ruled (perhaps a wee bit hyperbolically) that, unless Romney kicks some serious Obama ass next week in Denver, his White House dreams are deader than disco.
The panic is understandable. Despite Paul Ryan’s awesome Power Point slides and P90X-honed abs, Romney’s poll numbers have been sliding in exactly the wrong direction postconventions. A crisp, clear, resounding debate victory is the governor’s best shot at turning this baby around.
Why then does Team Romney seem dead set on making such a breakthrough performance nearly impossible?
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ED: How Bad are Romney's poll numbers? Very:
Sept. 26: Could 2012 Be Like 2008?
There’s no point in putting it gently: Mitt Romney had one of his worst polling days of the year on Wednesday.
It began with a series of polls from The New York Times, CBS News and Quinnipiac University, released early Wednesday morning, which gave President Obama leads of between 9 and 11 points in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Later in the day, Mr. Romney got polls showing unfavorable numbers for him in Colorado and Iowa.
Unlike many recent days, when Mr. Obama’s national polls were slightly less euphoric than his swing state surveys, Wednesday’s national polls seemed to support the notion that Mr. Obama has a clear lead in the race. The Gallup national tracking poll gave Mr. Obama a six-point lead among registered voters, close to his high mark on the year in that survey. The online tracking poll conducted by Ipsos gave him a six-point lead among likely voters. Another online tracking poll, from the RAND Corporation, put Mr. Obama’s lead at roughly seven and a half percentage points, his largest of the year in that poll. And a national poll for Bloomberg produced by the pollster J. Ann Selzer, who has a strong track record, put Mr. Obama six points ahead.
The exception was the Rasmussen Reports tracking poll, which gave Mitt Romney a two-point lead among likely voters. (This was in the version of the poll that included voters who leaned toward a candidate, which is the one that FiveThirtyEight uses for all surveys.)
What to think of the Rasmussen poll? Their surveys usually have a Republican lean, but it seems to have gotten stronger in the last few weeks. It has also been stronger in some years than others. Rasmussen got reasonably good results in years like 2006 and 2008 when their polls were close to the consensus. However, their polls were the least accurate of the major polling firms in 2010, when they had an especially strong Republican house-effect. The same was true in 2000, when they had a three- or four-point statistical bias toward Republican candidates.
This feature is not unique to Rasmussen Reports: a poll that substantially differs from the consensus, whether in a Democratic or Republican direction, is usually not one that you’ll want to bet on. And there is even less reason to do so when a poll is taking a number of methodological shortcuts, while others are being more thorough. But there have been years when the whole polling average has been off in one direction or another, and the “outlier” polls turn out to look good. It’s also the case that a broken clock is right twice a day.
Accounting for all of the data, including the Rasmussen Reports poll, the FiveThirtyEight forecast showed Mr. Obama making gains. His probability of winning the Electoral College is now listed at 81.9 percent, his highest figure of the year and up from 79.7 percent on Tuesday.
We’re at a point in the race, however, when it’s important to contrast what we think might happen on Nov. 6 with what we’re seeing in the polls at the moment. Right now, there is a gap between these two things.
Although Mr. Obama is now the clear favorite in the Nov. 6 forecast, his advantage is larger in the FiveThirtyEight “now-cast,” which projects what would happen in an election held today.
The “now-cast” estimates that Mr. Obama would have a 97.8 percent chance of winning an election held today. Further, it pegs his advantage at five and a half percentage points in the national popular vote.
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ED: No time to celebrate just yet, this is not over until after the election.