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Now that the dust has settled on the first Presidential debate (though it still echoes through Romney's good poll yesterday from Pew, and whiny flagellations about it, like that of Andrew Sullivan today), we are getting a clearer picture of where the numbers are, and where this election is. The answer is that it is presently a jump ball, though that state of affairs is close to the best possible present standing for Romney, leaving Obama far more opportunities to improve. This election will be decided in Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia, and New Hampshire. President Obama will win it if he either performs at rough parity with Mitt Romney in coming debates, or if he wins what amounts to a coin flip, because the probability of winning if he does not is essentially 50/50.
Romney's Improvement. We start from the reality that this is the most polarized electorate in our history. There are very few swing voters, and very few votes available from each party's base. Nonetheless, the voting pool was swingy enough (well, elastic enough) that Romney's strong performance that week took him from down around 4 to even today. (Yes, that's different than what I said the other day. The numbers are different.) The reaction is not so much to the debate but to the media-reinforced (albeit correct) perception that Romney won. The horserace drove Obama's margin in September, and is driving Romney's numbers now. It has been just enough for him. When you look at the internals of post-debate polls, Romney's margin of improvement comes from shoring up his base in states where it was weak (Wisconsin, where more than 10% of Republican voters were not with him), but more from improvements in his independent vote share (Ohio, where he now leads by 18 among independents). This is not all bad.
The good news for Obama is that Romney cannot do better than a +15 or +18 or so among independent voters -- this represents bringing home a great majority of Republicans disaffected with Bush or the Republican Party's increasing conservatism. Romney has maxed this advantage out, and he is still only roughly tied nationally and in these vital states. That tends to indicate that if President Obama can reverse the media groundswell by creating a "comeback" counternarrative (e.g., by holding his own in coming debates), he is likely to peel off at least some of the strayed independents. Additionally, the core appeal of Romney's debate performance is the appearance of addressing economic issues and of general competence. President Obama needs to take the 7.8% unemployment, and the case that Republican obstruction of his jobs bill kept it above 7%, to the American people. He doesn't need to win the argument, but he needs to present his side of it well. If he does, Romney's advantage among independents will drop (if not vanish), and any drop puts the President back ahead.
State Polling. Taking a more geographic spin through the polls, it seems that Obama and Romney are roughly even. Three of the last four polls of Ohio showed that state within one point either way (Obama leading in Rasmussen, same as last month, Romney up from -1 to +1 in ARG, both showing a close but fairly static race), though today's CNN poll shows Obama up by 4, seeming to reflect overall a razor-thin edge for Obama. Colorado has had post-debate polls showing Obama up and down 4, as well as up 1 in Rasmussen. The net effect, given that Colorado looked weaker than some swing states for Obama, is that it's roughly even. Nevada has shown Obama with a lead narrowing over several months, but with Romney never ahead; today Rasmussen shows Obama and Romney tied there. The Silver State, which went for Harry Reid by 5 points in the GOP wave election of 2010, will be especially tough for Romney, but is in play. Iowa's lone poll in the last week was a Rasmussen result showing Obama up 2. Virginia has shown Obama up 3 in PPP, but down 1 in Rasmussen; these results too represent two point declines for Obama. If you look at the sheer number of surveys in which Obama has led in Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, and Ohio, it is hard to escape the competing conclusions that Romney could win any of them, but only very narrowly, and that Obama should be very modestly favored within at least Nevada, Virginia, and Ohio.
Scenarios. Translating all that into electoral math, Obama's base is the Kerry states plus New Mexico, which is 251 EVs of the 270 needed to win. If Obama wins Ohio (18) or Virginia (13), he will certainly win at least one of Nevada or Iowa (both worth 6 EVs), putting him over the top. Keep a close eye on Ohio and Virginia polls for that reason; if Obama loses both, he may hold Nevada but would be unlikely to keep Colorado, which would give Romney a victory.
Two wild cards are Wisconsin (10) and (though unlikely to matter), tiny New Hampshire (4). If Obama wins the Kerry states and New Mexico but loses Wisconsin, Obama would need 29 EVs, which means Ohio becomes a must, plus 11 more, which could be gained from Virginia, or Nevada plus either Iowa or Colorado.
Predictions. Because I think Obama will fight back in debates sufficiently to modestly buoy his numbers, I still think he will win Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada, and likely Colorado. In particular, the solidity of Virginia polls (that electorate moved very little in 2008, very little this year, and is very racially and geographically determined already) make me think Obama remains the favorite to win narrowly there, and the slew of horrible polls for Romney in Ohio make me think he is utterly maxed there right now (though he could win today, it's about 50/50), and that Obama is half-likely to win the election by winning Ohio in a bad-case scenario. My greater worry is losing Wisconsin in the process and not picking up Ohio or enough western states to offset it. That's the Romney path.
The money is there. The campaign resources are there. The President needs to be there. If he is, any marginal improvement will probably be enough -- Romney cannot add five more points to his standing. If President Obama cannot perform well in the coming debates, the media cycle and dispirited whining on the left will make this a jump ball he can lose. And that is where it is today. I have written over and over again about how Barack Obama comes through the most when his back is to the wall -- after he was on the ropes following the New Hampshire primary in January 2008, after the Jeremiah Wright tape-looping in March 2008, after Scott Brown and the passing of his 60 vote majority pushed him to push HCR better. This election is now his to win (not Mitt Romney's), but it is not his to lose, as the President seems mistakenly to have thought. If he tries to win it, he and the Democratic Party will likely be fine. If not, I'll flip the coin. You call it in the air. Heads, Democrats own the recovery and pick Supreme Court Justices, tails, Mitt Romney and his vision for us all.