Separating spin from reality
According to political-class pundits, the race for the White House was turned upside down by a single debate. The reality, however, is that a very close race shifted ever so slightly from narrowly favoring President Obama to narrowly favoring Mitt Romney.
Either way, it remains too close to call.
The difference is that voters base their decisions on the substantive issues in the world around them. The political class is distracted by superficial imagery, an obsession with the game of politics and the sound of their own voices.
While it might be boring to those in the political class, Election 2012 has been stable all year. Oh, sure, there have been occasional mini-surges where one candidate gained a little ground temporarily. But it's been close all along.
That's because elections primarily are about fundamentals. In January, the most important fundamental was that the president's job-approval rating had been stuck around 47 percent or 48 percent for two full years. That's good enough to be competitive but not good enough to ensure victory. An Electoral College analysis in January showed that four states were likely to be decisive — Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina.
Fast forward to the final month of the campaign, and nothing has really changed. The president's job approval has barely moved because nothing in the real world has caused people to think differently of his performance. Voters are not better off than they were four years ago — but they're not worse off, either.
As a result, the Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll shows that the two candidates have been within 3 points of each other in 89 of the past 100 days. Considering the 3-point margin of error, that's a tossup almost every day. All four of the key states are just as close as the national numbers, and they're still just as important as we expected they'd be back in January.
In other words, nothing has really changed for 10 months, but that isn't unusual.
In 2004, on the night after John Kerry wrapped up the Democrat nomination, he trailed George W. Bush by 3 points. Ten months later, he lost to President Bush by 2.5 points.
In 2008, after wrapping up the Democrat nomination, Barack Obama led John McCain by 5 points. On Election Day, Obama won by 7 points. Fundamentals matter more than campaign consultants.
This background helps put the recent debate performance in context. Before the debate, the president was narrowly ahead. After his poor showing, he was narrowly behind. But for all the noise, only about 2 percent of voters changed their opinion from grudging support of Obama to grudging support of Romney. For the other 98 percent, nothing changed beyond the fact that they might feel a bit better or worse about their candidate.
While impossible to measure precisely, it is likely that the shift took place among voters who were disenchanted with the president but unsure whether Romney would be any better. After the debate, some may have concluded that Romney looked like a plausible president and was worth a shot.
Where will it go from here? If nothing changes in the real world, the race will remain close until Election Day. If perceptions of the economy or events in the Middle East shift, the election could shift, as well. But the bottom line is that whatever changes take place will be driven by voter perceptions of reality, not the petty preoccupations of the political class.
Scott Rasmussen is founder and president of Rasmussen Reports.