If President Obama is reelected in November, the video of Mitt Romney's remarks to a private fundraiser will inevitably be cited as a “turning point” in the 2012 campaign.
Narratives of presidential elections often pivot around unexpected events. Just four years ago, Obama and John McCain were virtually even in mid-September polling. Then Lehman Brothers collapsed, dragging down financial markets and dooming McCain’s chances.
But right now, with the Romney video still big news, it’s worth noting (and remembering) that Obama had already pulled ahead before footage of Romney’s disparaging remarks about 47% of the population surfaced this week.
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New national opinion surveys, made public over the last 24 hours, found that Obama has widened his advantage over Romney — to five points in one poll and eight in the other. The new polls were completed on Sept. 16. Mother Jones magazine put the secretly recorded Romney video on its website Sept. 17.
A just-released Pew Research Center poll shows Obama leading Romney by 51% to 43%. That is a larger lead than recent surveys by other polling outfits and the biggest mid-September advantage in Pew’s presidential polling since President Bill Clinton led Republican challenger Bob Dole by a dozen points in 1996.
The other major survey, by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, showed Obama leading Romney by five percentage points, 50% to 45%. The poll found that Obama is in better shape in September than President George W. Bush was in his ultimately successful reelection contest against Democrat John Kerry in 2004.
Both surveys show that Romney has failed to turn a sputtering economic recovery to his advantage. And the latest distraction, in the form of his own recorded words from a Florida fundraiser earlier this year, only complicates his task, by shifting attention away from that issue.
The new polls are worth noting for two other reasons, beyond their usefulness in measuring the presidential contest just before the video surfaced.
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Both surveyed likely voters. Thus, they should offer a more accurate snapshot of what would happen if the election were held today, as opposed to polls of all registered voters (which inevitably include people who won’t actually vote). In addition, they were conducted by experienced, well-regarded pollsters (the media poll is a cooperative venture by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff; Pew’s polling, directed by Andrew Kohut, is independent and nonpartisan).
Hart and McInturff concluded that voters were more optimistic about the nation’s economic future than in their previous surveys. That’s a positive finding for Obama, who is attempting to become the first incumbent since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win reelection with unemployment above 8%.
Still, there are more than six weeks left to go until election day. October's TV debates have the potential to shift the dynamics of the contest. Another unforeseen event could also shake up what had been, until very recently, a virtually tied race. And the race will be decided by views in battleground states, though there is not much good news for Romney there either, as Obama has held narrow leads in almost all of the states which are hotly contested.
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At the same time, though, post-Labor Day national polls over the last quarter-century has usually pointed the way to the election outcome. In Pew’s surveys, the only exception was 12 years ago, when Al Gore led George W. Bush by five percentage points in mid-September. The Democrat did manage to win the popular vote (by less than one percentage point), but he lost the electoral vote.
Over the next two weeks, both sides will be watching intently to see how much self-inflicted damage Romney may have suffered. If this episode is little more than a bump in the road, Romney still faces an uphill fight against an incumbent president. But if he falls even farther behind, with time running out, the video may have mortally wounded the Republican challenger.