Over the last month President Obama has built up a lead over Mitt Romney in many swing states. According to the Real Clear Politics aggregate polling data, Obama is leading in Florida (+3.0), Virginia (+3.4), Iowa (+3.5), Nevada (+5.2), Colorado (+3.1), Wisconsin (+6.7), New Hampshire (+6.0) and Ohio (+5.5). Romney has only a slim advantage in North Carolina (+0.7) and is leading in Missouri (+5.0). Nationally, Obama is polling at 49% while Romney is at 45.7%. With only a month left until Election Day it’s time to hand the victory to Obama, right? Not so fast.
During the 2004 election, polling data told a similar story. On September 30, 2004, George Bush was polling at 49.5% while John Kerry was at 43.5% on the same Real Clear Politics aggregate scale — a larger advantage for Bush over Kerry than for Obama over Romney. By election day the margin between the two candidates shrunk as Bush polled at 48.9% and Kerry at 47.4%, as the election was a close call decided by the state of Ohio.
How did Kerry close the gap? The Debates. There were presidential debates on September 30, October 8, and October 13, 2004. Within 12 days, Kerry’s performance after the first two debates reduced Bush’s advantage from 6 % on September 30 to only 0.8% on October 11 (Bush 47.3%, Kerry 46.5%). After the October 13debate, Kerry’s poll numbers dipped slightly; however he regained the difference by Election Day and reduced Bush’s lead to 1.5%. Although Kerry did not win in 2004, the election proved that a deficit in the polls one month before the general election could be substantially reduced. To take an even more drastic example, in 1980, two days before their October 28 debate, Ronald Reagan was trailing Jimmy Carter by 8% according to a Gallup poll. One week later, Carter lost the election by more then 10 percentage points.
How long did it take for Obama to build his lead over Romney? One month. On September 6, Obama and Romney were tied nationally, each polling at 46.8%. Currently, Obama leads by 4.2%. If it only took a month to create Obama’s advantage, it can similarly be overcome. This is the story in arguably the two most important states in this election, Florida and Ohio. On August 26, Obama and Romney were tied at 46.3% in Florida. Likewise on September 7, Obama was leading by only 0.7% in Ohio, which potentially falls within the margin of error of these aggregate polls. The president has a considerable lead in both states now, however the polls show that it does not take an extended period of time for potential voters to change their opinions.
Mitt Romney does not have the Reagan appeal or ability to swing a huge mass of voters during one televised debate, but he also does not need a miracle to turn his campaign around. The current Obama lead can be attributed to the better Democratic National Convention, and Romney’s untimely gaffes over the past month. This means that Romney absolutely must have a strong performance at the upcoming debates, when tens of millions of Americans will tune into the presidential contest for the first time. Romney also has to have a flawless final month on the campaign trail to tighten up the race, and he cannot gift the Obama campaign with another misstep.
Romney’s polling deficit to Obama is not insurmountable, but it will not be easy for him to win. Although history says victory is possible, Romney in the end will determine if history is on his side.