The US Presidential race is polling at a hair’s breadth between the two major party candidates. Obama and Romney stand within few points of each other in most samples and taking the margin of error into account, the incumbent’s generally negligible lead is reduced to meaningless proportions. This, at least, is broadly the message of the domestic and international news media. There are important considerations to include, particularly the distinction between “registered” and “likely” voter polling and the fact that there are several third party candidates.
Of note, Romney has only led Obama in one Gallup Tracking poll of registered voters which took place 14-20 October in the aftermath of an excellent performance by Romney in the first presidential debate, and a highly competitive vice-presidential debate between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden.
Following Obama’s improved displays in the second and third debates, the polls tightened again and Romney has found primarily minor gains in exclusively likely voter polling of a two-way race, the key exceptions being another Gallup Tracking poll, 22-28 October, and one Rasmussen poll, 20-22 October, with a five and four point lead respectively beating the margin of error. This can still be countered with an astonishing, though outlying, twelve point lead for Obama in the Ipsos/Reuters poll of registered voters taken 24-28 October.
Polling for three, four or five-way races is direly insufficient but the most recent Zogby/JZAnalytics poll, 18-20 October, shows Obama holding a more likely two point lead over Romney in a five-way race involving Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, Green candidate Jill Stein and Constitution candidate Virgil Goode.
Add to this the good fortune Obama has encountered in the past week, with New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie lauding the president’s efforts in managing the Hurricane Sandy crisis and New York’s widely respected Mayor Bloomberg providing vocal support. The momentum gained by the former Massachusetts governor throughout October was starting to diminish prior to the campaign hiatus forced by the hurricane, but Obama was effectively allowed to continue by virtue of his public obligations as president. Public perception of his presidency further recovered after his soporific first debate.
The extremely encouraging figures of 171,000 new jobs posted with unemployment held fractionally below 8%, will also have Romney struggling more than polls suggest. His most acceptable case for becoming president resides in a wealth of private sector experience that could be put to good use in improving job markets. This has been his key argument, coupled with intense criticism of Obama’s efforts in this area. Beyond what was tantamount to an endorsement from one of the Republican parties likely future leaders in Christie, the numbers are a significant blow to Romney’s advocacy for change.
With New York Times pollster Nate Silver increasing the odds of an Obama victory to 80%, it seems the boost incurred by Romney’s admirable debate efforts were short lived, or more forgivingly, not enough to beat a literal force of nature and a practically perfect response from the president.