Remember last Tuesday, which was just seven days ago? Nate Silver gave President Obama an 85% chance of winning re-election and Obama was near 80% on Intrade. Mitt Romney's staffers were quietly questioning whether the race was over and Republican candidates were openly speculating on whether Romney was ruining their own chances.
It seems like a long time ago, doesn't it? With five weeks to go in the static-for-months presidential race, Obama looked like a safe bet for a second term. With four weeks to go, Obama looks like an underdog.
What the race will look like with three weeks to go is, at this point, anybody's guess.
But in light of the mania of speculation I've seen in some corners, it seems like a good time to pause, take a deep breath, and take stock.
First up, let's reflect for a moment on the first debate. Dave Weigel, reporting from New Mexico, shared an anecdote that resonated with me.
After spending a weekend talking to voters in a close state that's no longer really "swinging," the first presidential debate has come to remind me of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Democrats walked out of the theater/turned off the TV saying "huh, well, I wanted it to be better." After a few days of talking to friends, it changes from a disappointment into the worst piece of crap in human history.
Let's not forget, focus groups last Wednesday showed Romney winning the debate, but not necessarily wining votes. That changed after the post-debate hysteria/groupthink kicked in.
Indeed, there was a feeding frenzy that (forgive the mixed metaphor) led to a snowball effect -- the conventional wisdom went from "Obama had an off night" to "Obama was awful" to "Obama humiliated himself" to "Obama drooled on himself before stripping naked and singing the Soviet national anthem." This evolution in perceptions, it's worth noting, happened with incredible speed.
Opinions are going to vary, and like art, not everyone will see the same event the same way. But those arguing that Obama's lackluster timidity for 90 minutes matters more than policies, agendas, beliefs, records, worldviews, national priorities, and history are being needlessly immature.
What's more, Kevin Drum had an insightful item overnight, arguing, "Rarely has the hack gap been on such febrile display as it has since last Wednesday's presidential debate. Ask yourself this: can you even imagine Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh tearing their hair out over a weak debate performance by Mitt Romney the way that liberals have been over President Obama's? ... You don't normally see the temperamental difference between liberals and conservatives so dramatically on display. Most conservatives simply wouldn't have been willing to slag their guy so badly. Liberals, by contrast, almost seemed to enjoy wallowing in recriminations. It was practically an Olympic tournament to see who could act the most agonized."
What about the polls?
Democrats looking for reasons to panic can certainly find some. A Pew Research Center poll released yesterday showed a dramatic reversal in the presidential race, with Obama going from a 8-point lead over Romney last month (51% to 44%) to a four-point deficit this month (45%-49%) among likely voters. The poll was conducted the three days immediately following last week's debate.
The newly released Public Policy Polling survey for Daily Kos/SEIU also shows a reversal -- Obama's four-point lead has turned into Romney's two-point lead.
But both of those polls were taken immediately after the debate, when the political world, hair on fire, was still screaming at voters that Obama had committed a crime against humanity. This tidbit from a new ABC News polling report seems important:
Night-to-night data indicate a sizable boost for Romney, and drop for Obama, on Thursday night, a day after their first debate, which Romney widely is seen as having won. But both of those trends subsequently subsided in this poll, conducted Thursday through Sunday.
Indeed, poking through the ABC poll's data (pdf), it's clear that while Romney's favorability inched higher after the debate, so did Obama's. As a matter of fact, the president's favorability advantage is greater now than it was in January.
Organized fits over polls four weeks before an election, a time when the results are certain to be "noisy," is pointless. Eight years ago today, CNN released a poll that found Kerry leading Bush. Republicans didn't look for the nearest window to jump out of.
If folks on either side don't like the way the race is going, they should try getting involved, and investing their energies in the campaign itself, rather than wringing their hands or coming up with conspiracy theories.
It's a close race. It's going to remain a close race. It was always expected to be a close race. Those on the verge of falling to pieces really need to get a grip.