A few weeks ago, while President Obama was still enjoying his convention bounce, he dipped suddenly in the Gallup tracking poll of registered voters. After hitting 50 percent on Sept. 13, Obama dropped to 47 percent and a tie with Mitt Romney for several days, until Romney’s “47 percent” remarks ignited a firestorm of controversy and drove his numbers downward.
You should keep this in mind when thinking about the most recent polling from Gallup, which shows Romney pulling into a tie with Obama on the strength of last week’s debate. According to the tracking poll, the two candidates are tied with 47 percent of the vote. 72 percent of all debate watchers say that Romney won the debate, while only 20 percent say so for President Obama. Romney’s 52-point win is the largest Gallup has ever measured in its history of conducting debate reaction polls.
It’s worth embracing a little caution before drawing conclusions from this. There still isn’t enough polling available to judge the scale and scope of Romney’s post-debate bounce, and according to Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, there are signs already that it’s subsiding.
In other words, while Romney has made gains in the polls, it’s unclear whether this is distinct from the usual sturm und drang of the presidential election. To paraphrase from Romney pollster Neil Newhouse, this might just be a “sugar rush” of enthusiasm from previously disaffected Republican voters.
Still, it should be said that this has always been a winnable election for Mitt Romney, and there’s a good chance we’re witnessing a reversion to the mean — where Romney solidifies his gains among Republicans, and the ground shifts to a final battle for independents and swing voters. Indeed, this explains Romney’s decision to shift to more moderate and “humanizing” rhetoric, despite the fact that he remains committed to the same right-wing policies; Team Romney has determined — correctly — that now is the time for Romney to convince the public of his essential moderation and peel off crucial support from Obama.
Given the extent to which Obama still leads on most measures of leadership — and is tied on the economy — I’m not sure that this gambit will work —it might be too little, too late. At this point, however, it’s Romney’s best shot for pulling ahead in the presidential race.
Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect and writes a blog there.