Public-opinion polls are lagging indicators in politics. By the time a shift in the trend becomes clear from poll data, the causes of the shift are days or weeks in the past. It is therefore unwise to extrapolate the current trend forward or to begin thinking of polls as supernatural prophecies that predict future events.
With all those caveats in mind, however, Mitt Romney enters the final two weeks of the presidential campaign looking very much like the next president of the United States, and it is not merely poll data that creates this impression. President Obama's own campaign has begun to emit clear signals that the incumbent's re-election prospects are dwindling, and anecdotal evidence of strong Republican momentum is not hard to find these days. We cannot predict what will happen in tonight's third and final presidential debate (9 p.m. ET at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida), but it is a fairly safe guess it won't have the game-changing impact of the first debate on Oct. 3, one of two apparent pivot points that triggered Obama's downward slide. While the impact of Romney's one-sided victory over a listless Obama in Denver has been universally acknowledged, it would be wrong to overlook the political effect of the other pivot point, the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
The Benghazi attack appears to have started slowly sapping Obama's support in late September. On the day of the attack, Obama was leading the Real Clear Politics national poll average by 3.6 points (49.0 to 45.4) and in the immediate aftermath of the attack Obama actually expanded his lead. By Sept. 29, Obama led the RCP average by 4.6 points (48.9-44.3), nearly equal to his 4.7-point lead on Aug. 12, which was the largest advantage Obama had held since Romney effectively locked up the GOP nomination in April. From Sept. 29 to Oct. 3, however, Romney closed the gap by 1.6 points, a fairly significant shift in a four-day span. This shift happened after the Obama administration's original explanation of what happened in Libya -- as a "spontaneous" reaction to an obscure YouTube video about Islam -- began unraveling.
On Sept. 17, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice made the rounds of the Sunday news shows to claim the deadly assault on the Benghazi consulate "was a spontaneous -- not a premeditated -- response to what had transpired in Cairo… in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated," as she told Jake Tapper on ABC's This Week. Within a few days, however, stories began to emerge about Ambassador Christopher Stevens' concerns that he was on an "al-Qaeda hit list," and a series of attacks and threats against U.S. diplomats in Libya. Yet in his Sept. 25 speech at the United Nations, Obama had mentioned the YouTube video six times, as if the original explanation of the Benghazi attack were still credible.
Thus, the president was already faced with a widening "credibility gap" before the Oct. 3 debate, where Romney finally achieved the key goal of his campaign: Establishing himself as a plausible and acceptable alternative to Obama. It was during that 90 minutes that Team Obama's entire strategy of the 2012 campaign was shattered. By hammering Romney early with attack ads in May and June, when the president's campaign still enjoyed a one-sided cash advantage, Obama's strategists had hoped to present voters with a choice -- demonizing Romney as unacceptable -- and prevent the election being seen as a referendum on Obama's performance. This "choice vs. referendum" battle had been recognized by both sides as the crucial dynamic of the race, and the first debate meeting shattered the Obama campaign's message. The national TV audience of millions had a chance to see Romney as a reasonable and well-informed leader, rather than as the out-of-touch extremist portrayed to them by both the national media and the Obama campaign.
Suddenly, everything was different, and nothing that has happened since -- including the more aggressive performances by Joe Biden in the vice-presidential debate and Obama in his second debate meeting with Romney -- has changed the impact of that breakthrough moment for the Republican challenger. The latest polls (including the Gallup tracking poll released Sunday that showed Romney with a 52-45 lead) clearly indicate that the tide has turned against Obama and, with barely two weeks remaining until Election Day, it may already be too late to reverse it.
There is a term for what has apparently happened, a phrase coined 15 years ago by economist Timur Kuran and recently popularized by Professor Glenn Reynolds: "Preference cascade." We do not yet know whether this term accurately reflects the sudden shift of opinion against Obama and in favor of Romney; polls can zigzag erratically back and forth, whereas a genuine "preference cascade" is one-sided and irreversible. Democrats are abuzz with talk of an "October surprise," hoping that Obama can miraculously recover from his three-week slide, and unexpected events could still turn the polls around.
However, Republicans are increasingly confident and Democrats are increasingly discouraged, and not just because of the polls. Veteran political analyst Michael Barone observes that the Obama campaign's Electoral College "firewall" appears to be collapsing. While the Democrats seem to have given up on North Carolina and perhaps even Florida, the Republicans are now expanding their own ambitions to include Pennsylvania. And over the weekend, it was reported that the RNC has an 18-to-1 campaign cash advantage over the DNC.
If Romney were indeed riding the momentum produced by a decisive "preference cascade," such signs are exactly what we might expect to see. However, Professor Reynolds has also popularized another phrase Republicans should also keep in mind: "Don't get cocky."
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