If you're supporting Barack Obama in this election, here are the hard political realities regarding how the final two presidential debates will impact his chances of victory:
The Bad News:
Because he is widely perceived as having lost the first debate, Barack Obama's political standing has taken a major hit.
The lead he accumulated after Bill Clinton's masterful DNC speech and the revelation of Mitt Romney's polarizing "47 percent" comments has not only evaporated, but been replaced by a deficit. An average of the eight national polls taken entirely after that debate (i.e., which started surveying on and/or after October 4th) puts Romney ahead by slightly more than one point (47.1% to 46%), with the most optimistic projections merely showing a tied race (as opposed to Obama leading in any of them) and the bleaker ones having the president behind by as much as four points (Pew Poll: 49% to 45%). Similarly, the post-debate swing state polls have Obama ahead by at least three points in only two states (Pennsylvania: 49.3% to 44.3% and Michigan: 48.8% to 44.4%), ahead by only one to three points in four states (Ohio: 47.9% to 46.6%, Wisconsin: 50% to 47.7%, Iowa: 49% to 47%, and Nevada: 48.3% to 46.3%), behind by one to three points in a single state (New Hampshire: 49% to 47%), behind by at least three points in two states (North Carolina: 50.5% to 44.5% and Florida: 49.4% to 46.2%), and essentially tied in two states (Virginia, where he is ahead 48% to 47.8%, and Colorado, where he is behind 47.4% to 47.2%). If this status quo remains in place on Election Day, the undecideds lean toward Romney (which the post-debate zeitgeist leads one to intuit will be the case), and he thus loses every swing state except the two in which he is ahead by a relatively safe margin, he will fall behind in the Electoral College - where presidential elections are decided - by 301 to 237. Even the consolation of a popular vote victory will be unlikely, as the trend of Romney posting one-to-two point leads (and Obama not pulling ahead in any of the post-debate polls) suggests that the status quo would have the Republican win, albeit by a small margin.
The Good News:
Barring a major political or governmental catastrophe within the next three-and-a-half weeks, this most likely represents the nadir of Obama's potential political standing. Because polls show Romney's immediate post-debate momentum leveling out, it's unlikely that Obama will do any worse than indicated above; likewise, because the president will benefit from the same low expectations that helped Romney in the first debate (as I explained in my two editorials before and after that event), the chances are quite strong that his next two debate performances will be deemed either victories or draws for him, both of which will help offset the negative effects of his perceived defeat on October 3rd (although obviously victories will do so to a greater extent). As such, assuming that Biden's victory over Ryan has little to no effect on Obama's overall standing (which I think is likely, as explained in my pre-and-post debate editorials here and here), the main question is whether those two debates will be able to cancel out the effects of the first one ... and if so, by how much.
Unlike infamous debate gaffes by other presidents (most notably Gerald Ford claiming "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" in 1976), Obama's problems involved not the substance of what he said (at the very least, fact-checkers have made it clear that Romney can be accused of just as many misstatements as right-wingers might attribute to Obama), but rather the style in which he said it, which was viewed as unduly distracted, deferential, and even withdrawn. Although popular mythology claims that this can destroy a presidential campaign (the most widely-cited example of this being the first presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, which was brilliantly analyzed by contemporary reporter Theodore H. White in a book whose sequel inspired my passion for American politics and history, The Making of the President - 1960), precedent shows that such negative impressions are usually temporary, especially if subsequent debates can take them out of the news cycle. If that pattern holds up today, it suggests that Obama will probably recover somewhat between now and November 6th.
Let's assume the worst case scenario (again, barring a markedly negative jobs report, an inexplicable repeat by the president of his earlier debating errors, or any kind of unforeseeable political pothole for Obama or Romney), one in which the two debates are deemed draws. Even if Obama only averages a one-to-two point bounce between national and swing state polls as a result ... a fraction of what Romney received after the first debate ... he would still either tie up or take a slight lead in the overall popular vote, as well as secure Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada for an Electoral College margin of 299 to 239. In the best case scenario, of course he would be declared triumphant in both debates (or at least the first one, which matters most) and reclaim his earlier five-plus point lead in the national vote, as well as win all of the aforementioned swing states (save North Carolina, which is probably out of reach now) for a 332 to 206 victory in the Electoral College. My suspicion is that the reality will fall somewhere between these two extremes, with Obama doing well enough to mildly reverse Romney's momentum without reaching his August and September highs. As the math makes clear, though, this would still give him enough of an advantage to win three-and-a-half weeks from now.
It can't be stressed enough that all of these projections are entirely speculative. No one can know with certainty how the media will chose to spin the next two debates - they could salivate for an Obama "comeback," feel like fanning the flames of a Romney "groundswell," or seize on some unpredictable gaffe by one of the two candidates that they decide defines the whole thing - and likewise no one can know what news events could explode over the next twenty-five days. Two weeks is a lifetime in the world of politics, as indicated by the fact that everyone "knew" Romney's candidacy was toast less than a fortnight ago. What's more, because the national and swing state margins between Obama and Romney are often so close, the influence of variables from undecided voters and the margin of error to third-party candidates like Libertarian Gary Johnson will be more significant than would be the case in a more one-sided election. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Obama's bottoming out only gives Romney a slight lead. This means that, given the right combination of political skill and good luck, a realistic possibility exists that the president will be re-elected on November 6th.