We are gratified that Mitt Romney did well in the last debate and is doing well in the polls. This is much needed good news, and certainly it has helped burst the Barack Obama media bubble. Having said that, there is a grave danger in rejoicing too much over these things.
Keep in mind that when it comes to the debate, the real story was not the debate performances, but the narrative. The old narrative was that Obama was a masterful speaker and debater, has a wonderful temperament, and that his policies were irrefutably correct, and that Romney was a bumbling idiot out to screw the poor to the benefit of the rich. That narrative was destroyed by the debate. However, if you discount that narrative, the two candidates were actually much more evenly matched in the debate than most people give them credit for.
With the polls as well, narrative is the key to understanding what is going on. Many national polls before the debate showed Romney five to nine points behind Obama. Now these same polls show Romney slightly ahead or the two men tied. Careful observers will note that the polls sampled many more Democrats than Republicans before the debate, and are now sampling more Republicans. Jon Cohen tries to explain this away by saying that party identification has shifted dramatically because of the debate. However, this ignores two salient points.
First, with the exception of Quinnipiac, all of the major national polls are weighted to make up for the fact that their sample is skewed. They have to be, as these polls depend on telephone calls and the vast majority of people are either not home when the polling company calls, or hang up when they discover the purpose of the call. Indeed, many people hang up as soon as they discover it is a robocall. The question is how the polls are weighted, and whether the same weighting is used every time. Unfortunately, most polling companies do not tell us this information. Cohen would have us believe that the polls are not weighted, but are just reporting the raw data–that they cannot help it if party identification varies radically from poll to poll.
Second, party identification is the key to understanding the shape of the presidential race, as past elections have mirrored party ID. For this reason, it should be measured independently of presidential polls, so that the validity and weighting of the presidential polls can be assessed. Fortunately, one pollster, Rasmussen, does just this. While Rasmussen does not have the post-debate party identification information up on his site, he does have the numbers through September:
His data shows two things. First, while party identification does change some, there has been no case where it has ever varied five to nine points in a matter of two weeks. Second, Republican party identification has been ahead of Democratic party identification all year (indeed, on average it has been ahead of Democratic party identification since November, 2010). Thus, the polls that oversampled Democrats by nine points before the debate were bunk. The recent polls showing a more even party breakdown are probably more accurate. However, with this in mind, Romney’s surge in popularity is not nearly as big as the press and some pollsters would like us to believe.
Again, it all comes back down to narrative. Obama and his team feel that it is important to tell a story, and this dovetails nicely with the desires of the press. In 2008, the Obama campaign famously coordinated their strategy with the press through Journolist. All indications are that they are coordinating with the press this election year as well. While it is true that Obama’s debate performance destroyed the old narrative and left them dazed and confused for a day or so, they are now steady working on a new narrative, the best and most popular narrative of all: The narrative of the comeback kid. To create this narrative, they have to build up Romney and his past debate performance, and they have to show him ahead in the polls. Obama has to be seen as struggling and behind. The mild setback of the last debate (and it was mild) must be made to be seen as a catastrophic setback. Then, against all odds, Obama comes from behind and wins the last debate, going into election day with the polls showing him having a new burst of popularity and energy. Discouraged Romney voters will stay home, and encouraged Obama voters will flood to the polls. On election day, America will “come back home again”. Or, so the narrative goes. For this reason, before election day any small Romney setback will be made to appear disastrous, and any small Obama success, no matter how slight, will be magnified by the press into a victory of epic proportions.
The key point is that we need to stop letting the Obama campaign and the press set the narrative. Conservatives need to stop believing the hype, even when it appears to be in favor of our candidate. We need to stay grounded in reality, and we need to start making our own narrative where our candidate wins. We need to stop being played by these fools.