Romney gained in numerous ways from his strong first debate performance, but the two most important were his favorability ratings and his performance among women voters. Before two weeks ago, Romney’s favorability ratings had been underwater in multiple swing states, largely due to a successful push by Obama’s campaign to paint him as a heartless, offshoring plutocrat. Romney managed to flip those numbers with his debate win, and his rise in the polls, especially in states like Florida and Pennsylvania, followed his rise in favorability ratings; only in Ohio, where the Bain attacks hit especially hard, has Romney not seen a significant increase in his favorability, though he has still gained there. Per Greg Sargeant, Romney also significantly closed the gap among women voters, which, during the legendary contraception wars of the spring of ought-12, was almost comically large.
In Tuesday night’s debate, Obama hit Romney hard in both these areas. Obama’s constant, Biden-like interruptions about the mendacity of Romney’s claims, his reminders that Romney has often held differing positions for differing audiences, his resuming the vulture capitalism trope, his Bain attacks, his nice line about Romney’s pension—all of these were in the same key as the attacks that kept Romney in the high-30s to low-40s favorability for much of the general election. Obama also brought up Planned Parenthood four times (even when it wasn’t particularly relevant); had one of his strongest answers when speaking on the Lily Ledbetter Act and women’s health access; and quite insightfully spun a question about Bush economic policies onto Romney’s arguably more extreme social policies—all points aimed at reminding women voters why they were turning from the GOP in droves a few months ago.
Last night’s debate is unlikely to change the national polling numbers—as Kevin Drum points out in a spot-on post, the national polling is exactly where we thought it would be given the dynamics of the race and is unlikely to change. But just as Romney’s general rise in the polls has been the aggregated result of specific* gains in certain categories, look for Obama’s strong debate performance to be felt not in the national poll averages but in targeted areas like Romney’s favorability and women voters—areas that, however narrow they may seem, could be pivotal in important swing states.
* The first and last time Mitt Romney benefited from specifics in this race.