Can Romney still turn things around?

(CBS News) If you believe the vast majority of polls - and, to be sure, not everyone does- Mitt Romney is losing the presidential race. National surveys generally show President Obama with a small but significant lead over his rival, and the battleground polls have gotten increasingly grim for the Republican presidential nominee: The latest Quinnipiac/CBS News/New York Times surveyshowed the president leading by 9 points in Florida, 10 points in Ohio and 12 points in Pennsylvania.  

There is only one battleground state, North Carolina, where Romney appears to have a lead. In all the others - that's Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia and Wisconsin, in addition to the three mentioned above - most polls suggest the president has the advantage. The Romney campaign maintains its internal polls show a rosier picture, and it's certainly possible that the external polls are flawed. But while a widespread failure on the part of the nation's most respected pollsters is not impossible, it does seem unlikely.

For the purposes of this story, we are thus going to assume that the external polls are generally correct. Because those polls show Mr. Obama with the momentum, having gained ground over the past month, it would appear that Romney would need some sort of game-changing event to fundamentally alter the dynamics of the race.

There have been two events that might have had such an effect in recent months: Romney's selection of his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, and the party nominating conventions. But the Ryan pick does not appear to have helped Romney in the polls, and it now seems clear that it is Mr. Obama who most benefitted from the conventions.

It's possible that there will be an unexpected development that throws the race into disarray: A terrorist attack, for example, or an economic catastrophe like the one that struck during the 2008 campaign. There could also be some sort of last-minute revelation about one or both of the candidates - an "October surprise" - that has an impact. But barring the unexpected, there is only one major event left that would seem to offer Romney a chance to turn things around: The debates.

Newt Gingrich, who presumably would not approve of this discussion, argues that the debates are "the most important single event in Mitt Romney's political career" because "[t]he elite news media is doing everything they can to convince Romney's supporters that the election is lost." Certainly, the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate offer the best opportunity left for the candidates to take their case directly to voters, which is part of the reason they are being described as "do-or-die" for Romney.

The bad news for Romney is that debates have tended not to fundamentally alter the course of a race in the past. John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, found that the data show that "when it comes to shifting enough votes to decide the outcome of the election, presidential debates have rarely, if ever, mattered." 

That doesn't mean that the debates can't help a candidate to some extent. But they have not traditionally been game-changers - and oft-cited examples to the contrary, such as the 1980 debate between Jimmy Cater and Ronald Reagan, tend to be more mythical than factual. Part of the reason is that debates tend to come relatively late in the process, when most voters have already made up their minds. In the latest Quinnipiac/CBS News/New York Times swing state poll, only seven percent of voters in each of the three states who picked a candidate said they still might change their mind.

Still, a strong debate performance for Romney could, if nothing else, change the campaign narrative. Romney has had a terrible month: The polls have gotten worse, he's been hit by criticism from conservatives over the quality of his campaign, and his secretly-recorded "47 percent" comments played directly into the Obama camp's characterization of him as an out-of-touch plutocrat unconcerned with the middle class. A strong debate performance and a couple of polls suggesting he's gaining on the president could mean that Romney starts to see more positive headlines. That, in turn, could energize a conservative base that appears dangerously close to becoming demoralized.

The odds, however, are not on Romney's side. Nate Silver, the polling guru at the New York Times, compared polls around this stage in past presidential elections to the outcome of those races, dating back to 1936. He found that 18 of the 19 candidates leading in the polls at this point went on to win the popular vote, and 17 went on to win the Electoral College. (Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election in 2000.) if you get rid of the races in which a candidate was leading by double digits, the candidate with the lead at this point has won eight out of ten elections.

It would be a mistake to count Romney out of the race. The president's lead is far from insurmountable: Polls show that Romney's deficit nationally, and in most of the swing states, is in the single digits. But Romney appears to need to change the trajectory of the race soon, particularly since early voting has already begun in some states. If he can't, history suggests he is unlikely to emerge victorious on Election Day.

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