8 takeaways from the new Pew poll

October 8, 2012

The latest Pew poll showing former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney ahead of President Obama among likely voters has the potential to rapidly re-orient conventional wisdom about the challenger's chances of winning.

Of course, this is a single poll -- although Gallup's latest tracking also shows movement toward Romney since last Wednesday's debate -- and, as such, should be taken cum grano salis. Still, it's a major shot in the arm for a Romney campaign that 10 days ago was fighting off "Is it all over?" stories.  

While the topline numbers in the Pew survey are sexy -- politically speaking, of course -- and will draw lots (and lots) of headlines, there's lots of other interesting data contained within the guts of the survey. We dug through it and pulled out eight takeaways. They are below -- and in no particular order other than the order we noticed them.

* Romney won the debate. Big time....: It was clear in watching the first presidential debate in Denver last week that Romney was delivering a tour de force performance while Obama, well, wasn't. But the Pew poll suggests two thirds of all registered voters in their sample said Romney won the debate while just 20 percent said Obama had; those numbers were even more striking among independents -- 72 percent of whom said Romney won.  Among independents who watched the debate, 78 percent (!) said Romney won.  Everything else in the poll, which suggests movement across the board to the Republican, is born of the fact that people don't think Romney just won the debate but that he absolutely swamped Obama.

* ...But will it matter in the long run: In 2004, nearly six in ten registered voters who watched the presidential debate said they thought Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry had won. And in 2000, 41 percent said Al Gore won as compared to 32 percent who opted for then Texas  governor George W. Bush. So, the "winner" of the first debate wound up losing in each case. Which is either a trend or totally irrelevant depending on your partisan perspective.

* Surging GOP enthusiasm: Prior to the debate, Republicans seemed to be for Romney mostly because they were against Obama. But now, at least according to Pew, there is a clear surge in enthusiasm and engagement on the Republican side that is born of genuine excitement among the base for their candidate. Sixty-seven percent of Romney supporters in the poll say they support him strongly, a major increase from the 56 percent who said the same in the September Pew poll. And, more than eight in ten Romney supporters say they have given "a lot of thought" to the election while 67 percent of Obama backers said the same.

* People are (starting) to like Romney: In mid July, one in three (34 percent) of voters in Pew polling said they had a favorable opinion of Romney. Now, 45 percent do -- a five-point bump in his favorable rating even since the September Pew poll.  Forty seven percent still view Romney unfavorably so it's not all roses for the Republican nominee but his image does seem to be moving in the right direction.

* Romney, the ideas guy: Asked which candidate "has new ideas", 47 percent of registered voters named Romney while 40 percent chose Obama.  Romney spent much of the debate trying to offer (some) detail on his plan if elected -- remember that he started off the debate with an opening statement focused on his 5-point plan to grow the economy -- and it appears to have done him some good.  

* Romney's biggest weakness: More than six in ten voters (62 percent) agreed with the statement that "Romney is promising more than he can deliver" -- a finding that should provide some strategic guidance for Obama as he seeks to get back on his feet in the second debate next week. Obama tried to press this line of argument -- $5 trillion tax cut and so on and so forth -- during the opening moments of last week's debate but abandoned the "it doesn't add up" hit after the first 20 minutes or so.

* Obama's biggest weakness: A majority of those polled (54 percent) agreed that "President Obama doesn't know how to turn the economy around" while 44 percent disagreed with that statement.  Expect Romney to keep up the "he's a nice man but he doesn't know what he's doing" attack in the next debate -- it appears the most solid hit he has on President Obama in the race's final days.

* That pesky party ID question: The Pew sample for this poll was 36 percent Republican, 31 percent Democratic and 30 percent independent.  That's a major shift from the organization's September poll which was 29 percent Republican, 39 percent Democratic and 30 percent independent.  In the 2010 election, the electorate was 36 percent Republican, 36 percent Democratic and 27 percent independent, according to exit polling. In 2008, 39 percent of the electorate identified as Democrats while 32 percent said they were Republicans and 29 percent said they were independents.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake · October 8, 2012