28 Days Out: Polling Summary

Oh what change a week brings.  With just 28 days to go until Election Day, we’ve seen a real change in momentum in the Presidential race thanks to a great debate from Mitt Romney and a historically poor one from Barack Obama.

In this week’s election update, I’ll cover some of the data on the debate and how it has impacted the race and take a deeper look at the Senate.

The Presidential Race

Meet the real Mitt Romney

What a difference a week makes.  Last week I commented that Mitt Romney had two big problems in this race:

  1. He wasn’t well-liked by most voters and
  2. He had not yet really made the case against Obama in a widely watched forum.

In last week’s debate, Romney fixed problem number two and began the process of fixing the first problem as well.  The result was a big shift in the race in Romney’s favor.

Let’s look at some numbers:

  • Despite being expected to lose, Romney clearly won the debate.
    • According to a CNN Poll[1] conducted before the debates, 56% of voters expected Obama to do a better job while only 32% expected Romney to do better.
    • A Gallup Poll[2]conducted after the debate shows how convincingly Romney won.  Nearly three-quarters (72%) of Americans say Romney won while only 20% say Obama won.
      • Among Independents those numbers are 70% Romney/19% Obama.
  • The debate shifted the race in a significant way.
    • Gallup’s nightly tracking showed a five point Obama lead (50% to 45%) for the three days preceding the debate.
    • For the three days immediately after the debate, the race is tied at 47% each.

So what happened on Wednesday night to change things?  Americans finally got to see the real Mitt Romney in action.

Even President Obama expressed surprise after the debate in the unrecognizable opponent he was facing.  And he should. If the only things you knew about Mitt Romney were his performances in the Republican primary debates and the caricature created by Democratic advertising, you wouldn’t recognize the real Mitt Romney either.

But the thing that Republicans have always known about Romney is that he’s far more moderate than he appeared in the primaries or has been portrayed by Democrats.  Mitt Romney is, at his core, a center-right technocrat.  And that’s who wiped the floor with Barack Obama on Wednesday night.

We’re not in a position to predict the future, but from what we’ve seen of the two candidates—one who has a nuanced and extensive command of the issues and can clearly present contrasts between the two candidates in this campaign and another who appeared lost without his teleprompter and unable to think on his feet beyond his prepared talking points—we are hopeful that Romney can build on Wednesday in the remaining debates.

The Senate Race

A funny thing happened on the way to a Republican majority.

At the start of this election cycle, things looked really good for Republicans to regain control of the Senate.  To recap where we were:

  • Democrats had to defend 23 of their 53 seats (for purposes of this discussion we’re treating Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman as Democrats).
    • Republicans only had to defend 10 of our 47.
    • With previously Democratic-open seats in Nebraska and North Dakota and an extremely vulnerable Democrat in Missouri, it seemed as though 50 was an easy target for Republicans and a single seat net among the closer races would be enough to win control of the Senate.

So, what happened?  A series of things, really:

  • Olympia Snowe unexpectedly retired, turning a safe seat in Maine into an unlikely hold for Republicans.
    • Charlie Summers is running a very solid campaign here, and the NRSC is helping, but only one poll in the last months has shown this race within single digits.  And we’re going to treat Angus King as a Democrat for purposes of this discussion.
  • Todd Akin made some really unfortunate comments on “legitimate rape,” turning an almost certain pick-up in Missouri into a competitive race.
    • Akin may yet win, but he trails Claire McCaskill by six points in two recent polls.  That’s a big drop from the five-to-eight point leads he routinely held prior to his rape comments.
  • The political environment wasn’t as bad for Democrats as we had hoped in the wake of the 2010 wave.  This has kept contests across the country close and made things complicated for Republicans.

So, where does all of that leave us?  Not in a good place, really.

Let’s look at the current playing field:




Not Up



Safe Seats

5 (MS, TN, TX, UT, WY)

7 (CA, DE, MD, MN, NY, RI, VT)

Highly Likely Wins

2 (ND, NE)

8 (HI, ME, MI, NJ, NM, PA, WA, WV)




So, of the 11 seats that might (somewhat optimistically) be considered competitive, Republicans need to win six to tie the chamber and seven to win outright while Democrats need to win only five to tie and six to win outright.  That’s how fast this went from an optimistic cycle for Republicans in the Senate to an even playing field.

Now let’s look at those twelve races:


Recent Public Polling Margin[3]


R +2.3%


D +2.5%


D +4.3%


D +2%


D +3.5%


D +4.3%


R +3%


R +3%


D +4.8%


D +4%


D +5%


This is where the picture gets murky.  We discussed the problems with the state polls last week, and these data are subject to many of the same concerns.  Compounding that is that fact that many of the state polls are robo-polls or from less-than-reputable sources (or both) and we’d caution the reader against drawing too many conclusions from these numbers.

That understood, one conclusion we can confidently draw is that there are not seven states in which the Republican has a clear lead today.  We’re a long way from a being sure of the majority and a further from it than we were two years ago.

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[1] CNN/ORC Poll of n=783 likely voters conducted 9/28-30

[2] Gallup Poll of n=749 Americans who watched the debate conducted 10/4-5

[3] Most of these are realclearpolitics.com polling averages, except when there are significant time lags between polls still included in the average.  In those cases we have calculated our own averages of the recent polls.