Where Romney’s Poll Numbers Go Next (Hint: Halloween Came Early)

October 11, 2012

When a candidate gets a bump in the polls, like Romney has since the debate, the campaign on the upswing wants to think of it in terms of momentum. And you can’t ignore the real and important psychological lift that rising numbers give the candidate and his supporters. In the case of Governor Romney, they stop the pre-post-mortems and change the storyline from negative to positive.

But there’s another way to look at a bounce in the polls, too. Momentum implies more positive numbers to come, like a freight train gaining speed. But a bounce, at least in literal terms, is pulled back down by gravity. In polling, the phenomenon is regression (“the act of going back to a previous place or state”). Pollsters will talk about a candidate’s range, ceiling, and floor. A positive event – a good convention, endorsement, or debate – can influence lots of people to think better about a candidate. For some of them, it’s a permanent shift, for others it’s another data point -- good until the next one comes along. As they collect this information, they build a narrative about the candidate, a process of figuring out who the person is and whether they want to support him. Catch them right after a good moment and they’re with him, talk to them later and the good news is just averaged into the other things they've heard. (Remember, undecided voters are often less engaged in the process and, almost by definition, hold their opinions less firmly.)

Clearly there is some of both in the case of Romney’s jump, just as there was for President Obama after his good convention. There are voters for whom the debate performance was the last piece of evidence they need to support Romney. They were unhappy with Obama, but weren't quite comfortable turning the government over to the challenger. It seems likely that these are people who were already fairly close to deciding on the Republican candidate, and would likely have arrived at that conclusion sometime before election day. Conversely, those voters who liked Romney’s performance, but who are more fundamentally undecided, are still up for grabs.

In other words, you can argue that the debate mostly just accelerated the decision-making process for the people who would have ended up voting for Romney. Without the debate, they wouldn't have given a pollster their preference until, say, October 31st. But they saw enough last week to move up their timetable. By that view, the debate didn't change the race, it just fast-forwarded it.

That doesn't mean the debate didn't help Romney, or even saw some genuinely undecided voters turn his way. It was clearly a very good thing for him. But a lot of the change in polling numbers was probably the normal tightening that occurs at the end of a race, just happening a little sooner than it would have otherwise. Halloween came early for the President's campaign. It’s scary for his supporters, but probably, in the end, not really dangerous.

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