Tonight's debate, which is expected to focus on domestic policy, may present Mitt Romney with a real opportunity to shift the race in his favor. Consider this nugget from a survey conducted for NPR by Resurgent Republic and Democracy Corps (a Republican and a Democratic firm, respectively), based on a national poll of registered voters weighted to oversample battleground-state voters:
Nearly one-quarter of the electorate says what happens during the Presidential debate could affect their vote, a percentage significantly higher than those who are still undecided. President Obama holds a slight edge with these voters (47 to 43 percent), but this is a subgroup well suited for Governor Romney. They are more likely to be Independent (45 percent) than Republican (28 percent), or Democrat (26 percent). Two-thirds feel the country is on the wrong track, a higher percentage than the national electorate. Majorities disapprove of President Obama’s job performance and handling of the economy. Moreover, by 47 to 38 percent, they believe Governor Romney will do a better job on the economy.
These are the voters Romney needs to connect with. Romney already has a slight advantage with independents; Obama's persistent lead in most polls, including this one, is based on the apparent durability of Obama's coalition: Party identification samples look more like the 2008 electorate, with 7-point Democratic advantage, than like the partisan parity of the 2004 election or the 4-point Democratic advantage of the 2000 election. The party ID gap tightens when polls screen for likely voters (rather than registered voters), or when pollsters weight to a best guess on party ID (Rasmussen weights to the party ID results from his last six weeks of surveys, currently showing a 2-4 point Democratic advantage) but it's rarely enough to give Romney better than a tie.
So Romney needs to press his advantage with independents. The NPR survey tests an argument written by Resurgent Republic, attacking Obama on his economic record, against an argument written by Democracy Corps, attacking Romney's putative economic agenda. The result? "Voters overall prefer the Democratic statement by 53 to 42 percent. But among critical Independents, the Republican argument wins by 52 to 44 percent, or 4 points more than the margin by which Independents currently prefer Romney over Obama." And then there's this:
In May Resurgent Republic tested two arguments, one arguing that "President Obama's economic plan is working and we need to stay the course. . ." versus "President Obama's economic plan is not working and we need to try something different. . ." "Try something different" was preferred over "stay the course" by 55 to 40 percent among all voters, and 63 to 32 percent among Independents. Obama's campaign team apparently saw similar numbers, which is why they changed their argument to be essentially anti-Romney rather than pro-Obama.
If Romney can put Obama on the defensive over his economic record, he may just manage to shift the dynamic of the race. But Romney will also need to play defense without sounding too defensive himself, particularly regarding the leaked "47%" tape, which features prominently both in the Democracy Corps-authored message and in Obama's ads. Romney had better be ready to parry that attack.