Is now the time for everyone to panic? For backers of Barack Obama, the answer this weekend seemed to be a resounding "Yes." Strategists and bloggers seemed to spend the weekend throwing their hands in the air and shrieking over the U.S. president's dismal debate performance on Thursday and the sudden dramatic plummet in voting-intention polls that followed.
In quieter corners of the political universe, however, observers pointed out that the electoral odds still appears to be overwhelmingly on Mr. Obama's side. For the moment, those voices aren't being heard in Democratic circles, where the suddenly positive poll ratings for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, after months of poll-leading complacency, have been a sudden slap in the face.
Leading the Dionysian chorus was the well-known blogger Andrew Sullivan. "Devastating, just devastating," Mr. Sullivan wrote in Sunday on Newsweek's Daily Beast blog, under the apocalyptic heading "Did Obama Just Throw the Entire Election Away?" He seemed to answer in the affirmative:
"Romney's favourables are above Obama's now. Yes, you read that right. Romney's favourables are higher than Obama's right now. That gender gap that was Obama's firewall? Over in one night… That's terrifying. On every single issue, Obama has instantly plummeted into near-oblivion."
Mr. Sullivan was far from alone. Pundits across the liberal side of the media expressed shock at the president's banana-peel moment. "Romney has been helped" by the debates, acknowledged Peter Hart, a pollster for the Democrats. Rick Klein of ABC News suggested that the president is sinking into bathos amid a Romney resurgence: "Romney is getting more serious by the day, with a foreign-policy speech and now Paul Ryan about to make the case for conservative fiscal policies. Romney marches toward Benghazi, while the president marches down Sesame Street?"
With 28 days left in the campaign, it might be understandable that people would start to panic: The post-debate poll from the Pew Research Center showed support for Mr. Romney among likely voters rising to 51 per cent from 43 per cent, while Mr. Obama dropped from 49 per cent to 45 per cent – in other words, an almost instant reversal of the trends shown in previous polls.
But in other corners, more patient observers were pointing out that this is hardly an October surprise that puts Mr. Romney in a winning position – not yet, anyway.
The Apollonian side of the argument was led this weekend by the New York Times' Five Thirty Eight blog , which uses more detailed analyses of long-term poll data and swing-state dynamics to project the electoral-college outcome in the Nov. 6 election.
The analysis, by Nate Silver, shows that Mr. Obama has maintained a strong lead over Mr. Romney in both electoral-college outcomes (which actually determine the election) and in the probability of winning. Since June, Mr. Romney has never been in a winning position in either measure – and last week's debate debacle merely reduced Mr. Obama's Olympian lead back to mid-September levels, which were still excellent.
Projections after the debate show Mr. Obama with around 302 electoral-college votes, versus 235 for Mr. Romney. To win the presidency, 270 votes are needed, and Mr. Romney has not come close to that measure this year.
In Mr. Silver's statistical analysis of the probability of winning the election, Mr. Obama still stands at 74.8 per cent – a staggering 10.9 percentage point drop from Oct. 1, but still overwhelming his Republican challenger, whose odds rose to 25.2 per cent.
"Incumbent presidents just aren't that easy to defeat," Mr. Silver concludes. "The election might not be quite so unpredictable as it appears. There was reason to believe that Mr. Obama's numbers would fade some after his convention – and the first debate has quite often been a time when the challenger drew the race closer."
That now appears to have happened. It is closer – but it is not really close enough to warrant all the panic. Not yet, anyway.