The final evidence isn’t in yet, but there are strong indicators that Barack Obama received a real boost from the Democratic convention – bigger than the paltry bump Mitt Romney got out of his party’s gathering and potentially big enough to push Obama’s national lead to heights not seen since Romney emerged from the GOP primaries back in the spring.
Gallup’s daily trend line, which remained flat during and immediately after the Republican convention, has spiked in Obama’s favor over the last few days; as of Sunday afternoon, his lead was 5 points. He’s also pulled a few points ahead in Rasmussen’s daily poll, which has tended to be more Romney-friendly than other surveys, grabbed a 4-point lead in a Reuters/Ipsos poll, and seen his job approval rating crack the 50 percent mark. A PPP poll released Sunday night also showed Obama hitting 50 percent in Ohio. Overall, the Real Clear Politics average, which had shown a dead-even race as the Democratic convention opened, has Obama’s advantage climbing to 1.8 points – and possibly still growing.
The movement in Obama’s direction reinforces a point that many neutral campaign observers have been reluctant to make for months now: The presidential race is not, and has not been, a virtual tie – Obama is, and has been, winning.
The RCP average tells the story well. When Rick Santorum suspended his campaign on April 10, it essentially ended the GOP nominating contest and certified Romney as the GOP nominee. In the days immediately following Santorum’s exit, the Obama-Romney race tightened, with Obama’s edge shrinking from about 5 points to about 2. But Romney failed to overtake Obama, and in the four-and-a-half months that followed, Obama’s lead fluctuated between 1 and 4 points. Only in the immediate run-up to the GOP convention did Romney move into a genuine tie with Obama, but even the convention didn’t push him into the lead, and now the race seems to be returning to where it’s been all along.
It’s true that Obama’s lead in the RCP average isn’t, and hasn’t been, overwhelming. But it’s important to distinguish the RCP average from one-off polls, which can show fluky results and are best taken with a grain of salt because of the margin of error. An average like RCP’s takes every available and credible poll into account and eliminates the misleading noise that an individual poll can generate. For a candidate to enjoy a consistent lead of several points in a polling average is very, very significant.
Obama’s convention bounce also serves as fodder for those who see the 2012 race as a mirror image of 2004, when an incumbent Republican president overcame a shaky approval rating and serious public doubts about his leadership to win reelection. In ’04, George W. Bush actually lagged a few points behind his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, for most of the summer. But Kerry failed to generate a meaningful bounce from his party’s late-July convention, while the GOP’s early September show in Madison Square Garden provided a major boost for Bush. Just before the ’04 GOP convention, Bush led in RCP’s average by about a point; when it was over, his advantage had exploded to nearly 8 points.
We may be watching something similar play out now. The exact parameters of Obama’s Charlotte bounce won’t be known for a few days still, but he could wind up with his largest lead of the campaign. At the very least, he’s back to where he was before the convention, holding a small but significant lead over Romney. Eight years ago, Bush’s post-convention bounce lasted through September; it was only when Kerry turned in a strong performance (and Bush a weak one) in the first debate on Sept. 30 that the race again tightened – but even then, Bush maintained a slight edge through Election Day, when he posted a 2.5 percent victory in the national popular vote.
This year, the first Obama-Romney debate will take place on Oct. 3. The candidates will also meet on Oct. 16 and 22. Lots can happen between now and then, of course, but it’s striking that – except for the days immediately leading up to and during the GOP convention – Obama has enjoyed the lead for the entire campaign. So now that he has it back, there’s reason to suspect he’ll hold on to it until the debates, which may end up being Romney's best and last chance to make this a truly dead-even race.
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I talked about the state of the race and the polling advantage Obama has enjoyed for most of the campaign on "The Rachel Maddow Show" Friday night: