Romney surges, but it’s still (narrowly) advantage Obama

Poll after poll has confirmed that, in the eyes of the electorate as well as more seasoned commentators, Mitt Romney enjoyed a thumping victory over Barack Obama in the first US presidential TV debate, followed by a definite bounce in general election polling.

Gallup, who have been testing the public response to Presidential debates since 1984, found that Americans said Romney won the debate by 72%-20%, the highest margin ever seen. Even Democrats judged Romney the winner, by a 49%-39% margin. The CNN/ORC international poll carried out on debate evening also found Americans rating Romney as the winner by a whopping margin, in this case 67%-25%.

The debate win produced a burst of Romney support in both national and state polling. The respected polling average shows Romney enjoying his first lead over Obama in national polling since October 2011. Polls in crucial swing states confirm the trend – Colorado, Virginia and Florida, where Obama has enjoyed narrow but consistent leads for most of this year, now read like dead heats. The margin in Obama’s favour in Ohio, which opened up dramatically after the Democratic convention, has narrowed even more quickly. North Carolina has started to look like a state securely in Romney’s column for the first time.

If Romney can, indeed, sweep the South and pick up Colorado, then the election will come down to Ohio. Romney has been stumping frantically in the state and drawing large crowds to rallies – every bit as large as Obama’s. The GOP are also claiming a substantially stronger early voting operation in key states than last time around, seeking to neutralise the advantage of Obama’s sophisticated volunteer organisation and information management system.

It is now definitely ‘game on’. Republican activists are energised and excited. But it isn’t ‘game over’; in fact it’s still advantage Obama. What factors indicate that Romney still faces an uphill climb?

Firstly, debate bounces, like convention bounces, often prove ephemeral. John Cassidy of the New Yorker notes that John Kerry also enjoyed a 4-5% surge in national polling after a strong first debate performance against George W. Bush in 2004, which faded quickly. All three major national tracking polls have shown some levelling out of Romney’s initial post-debate surge over the past few days. Last Friday’s unemployment figures, which showed joblessness falling below the 8% level Obama inherited from GW Bush for the first time, may also have played a part in this.

Secondly, even at the height of the current bounce, Romney’s narrow national lead (which RCP currently estimates at 1.1%) is not translating into an electoral college win. Republicans currently face a significant structural disadvantage in the Electoral College, with huge Republican majorities in most of the South and Plains States adding to Romney’s national share of the vote but not his number of delegates in the Electoral College. It does Romney no good to pad his margin in Texas or Utah if he still falls a few thousand votes short in Florida and Ohio. This is true of all first-past-the-post systems – the largest party has not always won the largest number of seats in UK general elections either – but structural imbalances are magnified manifold in systems like that used for the Electoral College, where dozens of seats at a time can be awarded en bloc to the overall leader in a particular region.

Finally, Obama has started out-raising Romney over the past few months and in key states is matching and even outspending both Romney and the world of Republican Political Action Committees dollar-for-dollar in the artillery barrage of negative attack ads that has defined the election for many swing state voters.

If this is the peak of the Romney bounce, then the election is already over. If, on the other hand, this is the first of a number of mini-surges for Romney, then he may yet become the 45th President of the United States.

Given Obama’s dismal performance in the first debate, he cannot avoid any slip ups in his two remaining head-to-heads. At the time, Democrats mocked Romney for locking himself up for most of the week of the Democratic National Convention for debate prep. With hindsight, that looks like the smartest move of his campaign so far. Romney has turned an alleged Obama strength into a weakness. If Obama repeats his disastrous performance of last Wednesday, under-prepared and yet terribly stiff at the same time, he could be on his way to a one-term Presidency.

Tonight, however, will be the one night the two Vice Presidential candidates lock horns, with Paul Ryan’s energy and dynamism likely to contrast with Biden’s uncharismatic but robust old political streetfighter routine. Polling shows both VP candidates have anaemic approval ratings.

I have struggled to believe that the VP candidates, let alone VP debates, make the slightest difference in American elections ever since Lloyd Bentsen’s evisceration of Dan Quayle in 1988 failed to prevent George H W Bush obliterating Michael Dukakis come polling day. With all eyes on Obama’s lacklustre performance last week, this year could be different. But don’t bet the farm on it.