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The Silver Lining for Obama

Professional Democrats didn’t have a whole lot to work with on Wednesday night. On a call with pollster Stan Greenberg after the first presidential debate, I lost track of the number of times he emphasized that the focus group whose responses he was reporting leaned heavily Republican. I’m not sure how the veteran pollster ended up with such an unrepresentative mix, but that was just kind of the way things went for Democrats last evening.

Greenberg’s group of 45 undecided voters from the Denver suburbs gathered to watch the debates and answer questions about the two candidates. Two-thirds of them were women, including 12 unmarried women, and all were self-proclaimed independents, although like most “independents,” they had identifiable party leanings. In this case, 42 percent of the participants leaned Republican while 20 percent leaned Democratic.

Before the debate began, Obama was doing well among voters who had supported him in 2008, as well as some former McCain voters (30 percent of the group said if they had to choose, they would vote for Obama). At the same time, Romney lagged badly among Republican-leaning participants. Only 27 percent of the group said they would vote for Romney, which meant that a sizable portion of those who backed McCain in 2008 were not impressed enough with Romney to cast a hypothetical if-you-made-me-choose vote for him.

Over the course of the debate, Romney won those voters to his side. When it was all over, 42 percent of the group declared Romney the winner, compared to 20 percent who thought Obama won, and 38 percent who said neither candidate won the debate. And Romney’s share of the hypothetical vote had increased from 27 percent to 44 percent. The Republican-leaners had come home. 

On each of the more specific questions, participants also sorted out according to their 2008 vote and other party leaning. Republicans who had not rated Romney highly before the debate began now saw him as best able to handle the economy and as a strong leader.

The one area in which Romney made no headway with voters was on his ability to understand the concerns of the middle-class. Voters preferred Obama going in on the question of “who is better for the middle-class” and their views did not change following the debate.

Nearly all of the movement on Wednesday night came from undecided—but Republican-leaning—voters deciding to back Romney. Whether that was because after listening to the two men for 90 minutes these voters decided that they really were more ideologically in tune with the GOP or because they didn’t like the way Obama called his wife “sweetie” or because they just thought the president looked like he desperately needed a long vacation, they aligned themselves with Romney.

“What Romney accomplished,” said one of Greenberg’s colleagues in Denver, “was consolidating those Republican leaners who were undecided going into this.” As for Obama, Greenberg concluded, “there was no erosion.”

“No erosion” is hardly a rallying cry. But while Obama didn’t pick up much support in this focus group (33 percent said they would vote for him afterward, compared to 31 percent at the beginning of the evening), he ended up right at his 2008 vote levels. And at the end of the day, if Obama gets the same amount of support as in 2008, distributed the same way across key states like Colorado, he wins. That may be the official spin, but it’s also simple arithmetic.