Is Mitt Romney’s momentum real or fake?

October 25, 2012

There's been an active debate over the last few days in the political class about whether former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is genuinely the momentum candidate in the race, or whether he and his campaign are simply pulling the wool over gullible reporters' eyes when it comes to the state of the race.

Video: The Washington Post's Ezra Klein and Chris Cillizza analyze the week in politics.

Alec MacGillis of The New Republic casts the idea of Romney momentum as borne more from reporters' desire for a close race -- or at least a comeback story -- than a close inspection of the actual dynamics at work in the contest. 

Wrote MacGillis regarding the aftermath of Romney's performance in the first presidential debate on Oct. 3:

"The power of our story bore out across the land. Romney surged in the polls, in a post-debate bounce unlike any ever recorded. Never mind that closer inspection suggested that his rise had begun just before the debate, as Obama's prior bounce abated. As we like to say in private company, this story was too good to check. We had a comeback on our hands, and as the San Francisco Giants can tell you today, there’s no better story than a comeback."

So, what does that "closer inspection" reveal? Does it show that Romney genuinely surged in the wake of the first debate or, to MacGillis's point, does it reveal a media who, like the computer opponent in "Double Dribble," just likes to keep it close?

MacGillis is absolutely right to note that Obama had begun to fade from what even his staunchest allies acknowledged was an artificial high point in polling at the end of September. A Washington Post/ABC survey released just days before the debate showed the contest at 49 percent for Obama and 47 percent for Romney among likely voters, not exactly a blowout and a statistically insignificant difference from where the race stands -- 49 percent Romney, 48 percent Obama -- in the latest Post-ABC tracking poll.

But a look at polling in perhaps the three swingiest states in the country -- Florida, Ohio and Virginia -- suggest that between the first presidential debate and today, there has been a clear trend in Romney's favor.

In Florida, Romney went from behind by two points on Oct. 3 to ahead by 1.8 points on Wednesday in the Real Clear Politics poll of polls.

In Ohio, Romney went from down 5.5 points on Oct. 3 to down 1.7 points on Wednesday.

And in Virginia, Romney trailed Obama by 3.5 points on Oct. 3 and, as of Wednesday, the two candidates were deadlocked.

Viewed broadly -- and with a recognition that a poll of polls is not perfect science -- it appears that Romney gained roughly 3.5 points in each of that trio of states over the past 20 days.

That, at least in our book, would suggest that Romney has -- or at least had -- some genuine momentum built off of his strong first debate performance.  

But, you could argue, isn't that "momentum" simply derived -- as MacGillis argues -- from the media's decision to flood the zone with coverage of a Romney comeback?  

It's impossible to prove that idea wrong, but to believe in its rightness means that you think the media possesses considerably more power -- particularly among low information undecided voters and Republican base voters -- than we in fact do. (That's not to discount the fact that the media does have some power to influence voter perceptions. And, as Jonathan Chait rightly notes in a piece in New York Magazine, the idea that Romney is suddenly and clearly winning the race -- and pulling out of North Carolina -- is a fallacy that should not be perpetuated by the media.)

But there is a difference between casting Romney as the frontrunner and simply giving Romney his due for a strong debate performance that energized his base and gave independents voters more to like. (In the latest Washington Post-ABC tracking poll released Wednesday, 40 percent of independents said they like Romney more after the debates. Just 10 percent said the same of Obama.)

Now, the question of whether Romney still has the momentum in the race or whether the momentum he enjoyed has subsided is a tough(er) one. Democrats insist Romney has ceased moving up in swing state polling but, even with that admission, they are tacitly acknowledging movement in his direction in recent weeks.

What we do know is that Romney and Obama are in a dead heat nationally and the once-clear edge the incumbent held in a series of swing states has narrowed considerably. 

What we don't is whether Romney has peaked or not. But it's tough to argue that there hasn't been real movement toward him in the past three weeks. 

More Mourdock fallout: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says his continued support of Richard Mourdock depends on whether the Indiana Senate candidate comes clean and apologizes about the mistake he made in his comments about rape and pregnancy.

"I think it depends on what he does. If he apologizes and says he misspoke, and he was wrong, and he asks people to forgive him, obviously I'd be the first," McCain told CNN's Anderson Cooper on Wednesday. "As I said, I'm not sure how big of mistakes that I have made, but you know, in the years that I've been around, I've made a few, and I've asked for people's understanding and forgiveness when I owned up to it. If you don't own up to it, people will not believe in you."

Mourdock on Wednesday offered a semi-apology, saying he was sorry if people misread his comments.

While the national GOP says it still supports Mourdock, Republicans including McCain, Mitt Romney and gubernatorial hopeful Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) continue to step lightly around the issue -- a tack that both has the potential to hurt Mourdock and reinforces the idea that what he said was beyond the pale.

GOP outside group launches $4.5 million in ads: The Republican-leaning outside groups American Action Network and the Congressional Leadership Fund are going up with $4.5 million more in advertising in 13 of the most important House races in the country.

Many of the investments are on top of existing buys from the groups. AAN is spending $300,000 more on Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.), $80,000 more on Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), $100,000 more on retiring Rep. Tim Johnson's (R-Ill.) seat, $450,000 more on Nevada's new 4th district and $160,000 on the new 26th district in California. CLF is spending $300,000 more on the matchup between Reps. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) and Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), $100,000 more on Rep. Quico Canseco (R-Texas), $1.05 million on Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.), $820,000 on Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), $650,000 on Arizona's new 9th district, $195,000 more against Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), $250,000 on Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.), $215,000 against Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), and $40,000 for Rep. Dan Webster (R-Fla.).

The groups combined have now spent about $18 million in October across 22 districts to help Republicans retain the House -- something they appear very likely to do on Nov. 6. They have spent about $21 million including September.

AAN is a nonprofit issue advocacy group, while CLF is an affiliated super PAC.

Fixbits:

Obama tells NBC News that he always thought his reelection race would be close.

A judge in Montana has ordered the release of an edited version of a report on the investigation into a 2009 boat crash involving Senate candidate Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.). Rehberg suffered severe injuries, and an aide was in a coma for 10 days. The boat trip involved drinking.

new poll shows a virtual tie in the open North Dakota Senate race.

new Linda McMahon (R) ad in the Connecticut Senate race features dozens of facsimiles of Rep. Chris Murphy (D).

A new independent Elway Research poll of the Washington governor's race shows state Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) at 47 percent and former congressman Jay Inslee (D) at 45 percent.

The Florida Ethics Commission says it has probable cause that Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) violated the law 11 times while serving in the state legislature.

Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), who faces Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) in a merged district, is taking down his broadcast ads and will only be on cable through Election Day.

Must-reads:

"Obama maintains ad advantage despite being outspent by GOP" -- Dan Eggen, Washington Post

"Obama's Edge: The Ground Game That Could Put Him Over the Top" -- Molly Ball, The Atlantic

"Could the campaign ads benefit from the Mad Men touch?" -- Ned Martel, Washington Post

"When Obama Loved Private Equity" -- Jonathan Karl, ABC News

"As key Senate races get tighter, Republicans’ hopes rise" -- Rosalind S. Helderman and Paul Kane, Washington Post

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Sean Sullivan | October 24, 2012