Romney’s post-debate surge historic, but not a clincher

National Constitution Center

The latest polls show Mitt Romney getting a popularity bump after his first debate with President Barack Obama. But history also shows that may not be enough to unseat the president.

In the general election survey, Gallup now has the race at 49 to 47 percent for Romney, among likely voters, based on data released on Tuesday. Obama still has a 3-point edge among registered voters.

A Pew Research poll from Monday had Romney surging to a 4-point lead among registered voters. Rasmussen has the race deadlocked at 48-48 percent.

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On Monday, Gallup released its post-debate survey, which revealed that voters saw Romney as the clear winner over Obama, by a 72 to 20 percent margin. Those numbers are close to figures released by CNN right after the debate.

Gallup said Romney’s 52-point win was the largest it had even tracked in a televised debate, topping a 42-point win for Bill Clinton over George W. Bush in 1992.

Back in 2008, Gallup released a study on the effects of debates on presidential elections, and it didn’t find debates were a factor that usually determined an election’s winner.

Gallup only found two examples where debates were “game changers” that gave a contender who won the first debate an advantage on Election Day: the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates and the 2000 Gore-Bush debate.

In both cases, Kennedy and Bush went into the debates trailing, and came out of them clearly leading in the national Gallup poll. Gallup’s poll results released on Tuesday are essentially a draw, with Romney ahead among likely voters and Obama leading among registered voters.

In a statement on Tuesday, Gallup said there was other evidence that the Romney “debate bump” was fading.

“Obama’s slight 49% to 46% seven-day lead among registered voters is just about where it was in the seven days prior to the debate. This trend suggests that Romney’s impressive debate performance — 72% of debate watchers said he did the better job — may not have a lasting impact,” the pollster said.

In its 2008 study, Gallup saw clear trends that made the 1960 and 2000 debates unusual in their ability to put an underdog in the lead for good.

The pollster in 2008 didn’t have comparable pre- and post-debate data on the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan debate in 1980, which Reagan used to gain an estimated 6 points in the polls.  (There is also a significant historic debate if Reagan actually trailed Carter in the polls at the point, one week before the election.)

The Romney camp can only hope that the public’s reaction to the former Massachusetts governor harkens back to the Republican’s George Bush campaign in 2000. The future president made up an 8-point deficit in the Gallup polls over the course of three debates to take a 4-point lead on October 18.

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Then, Gore rallied to gain a 1 to 2 point lead on Election Day, with Bush taking the Electoral College vote and Gore the popular vote.

In neither 1960 nor 2000 was an incumbent president in the race.

The scenario from 2004 would favor the Democrats and President Obama in 2012. In that election, Democratic contender John Kerry made up 9 points on the incumbent, President Bush, after their first debate. Kerry had trailed by 11 points in the Gallup poll, and was within just 2 points of Bush after their first debate.

By the end of the third debate in 2004, Bush had a 3-point lead, which was also his victory margin on Election Day.

In the Kennedy-Nixon debates, Nixon recovered from a poor first debate, where he lost 4 points in the polls, over the course of the next three debates in 1960. Kennedy won by a very narrow margin in the popular vote, but by a wide margin in the electoral vote.

So the overall trend in the Gallup data is that a big loser in the first debate has plenty of time to recover, assuming there are more debates.

The Carter-Reagan debate was the only one between the two candidates in the 1980 election, and it came just one week before the election.

And if the Romney team is a tad too confident, it only has to look back at the 1976 debates between President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

Ford was seen as winning his first debate with Carter, but he lost 4 points in the polls after making a misstatement about Eastern Europe in the second debate. Ford did rally to make up the difference late in the campaign, but Carter won by about 2 percent of the vote.

In the post-debate shake out in the projected Electoral College map on Real Clear Politics, both candidates have lost votes from their columns in the past week.

Ohio has moved from the Obama column back to the Toss Up list, and in an unexpected move, Missouri has fallen out of the Romney column.

That gives President Obama a projected 251 to 181 lead in electoral votes, with 270 votes needed to win the election.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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