The fact that the president is pulling ahead in the polls means Mitt Romney missed his biggest opportunity of the race so far.
As the dust settles from the political conventions of the last two weeks, President Obama appears to have widened his lead over Mitt Romney. Polling trends come and go, and it's tempting to think this is just another blip -- that's certainly what Romney's campaign is frantically arguing. But the reason it's potentially a very bad sign for Romney -- and a very good one for the president -- isn't just that Obama and his party put on a better show for the media than his rival did over the last several days. Republicans were counting on Romney's convention to finally put him in the lead, and the fact that it didn't means he's running out of chances to make his case.
There's been enough polling over the weekend to bear out a substantial Obama bounce out of the conventions. Nate Silver pegs it at nearly 8 points, a claim Robert Wright examines here. A CNN poll released late Monday confirmed the trend, putting Obama up six points, 52 percent to Romney's 46 percent. But Romney's pollster, Neil Newhouse, argues that it's just temporary -- that what goes up must come down. "While some voters will feel a bit of a sugar high from the conventions," he wrote in a memo Monday morning, "the basic structure of the race has not changed significantly." (The memo went out to Romney's grassroots supporters as well as reporters, an indication it was intended as much for morale-boosting as media spin.)
Newhouse's argument is mostly rhetorical: that voters will turn against Obama because the economy is bad and the race has been close so far. Obama's top strategist, David Axelrod, mocked this analysis on Twitter, saying, "Anyone else find it odd that Mitt's pollster put out a state-of-the race memo this morning that was almost entirely devoid of polling data?" Newhouse does, however, point to a couple of factors working in Romney's favor, such as money and enthusiasm. Many Republicans I talk to also point to the fact that most polls conducted to date are of registered voters, not likely voters; they believe that once the pollsters' "screen" is narrowed to those most likely to turn out, Romney will do better.
But while the race has been close, it's been close so far almost entirely in Obama's favor. The president has led, by a narrow margin, in the vast majority of polling to date. The Republican convention was supposed to be Romney's chance to finally turn that trend around. In the leadup to the convention, GOP strategists and pundits repeatedly stressed how much was riding on it for Romney: It was his biggest opportunity of the campaign to finally convert voters' disillusion with Obama into support for the GOP. Middle-of-the-road voters had soured on the president, I heard over and over, but they weren't ready to put their trust in Romney; with a good convention argument, he could bring them around and start pulling ahead in the race.
Instead, it's now becoming clear that Romney didn't do that. Voters who were unsure about him before the convention are still unsure, or, worse, turned off. Romney will have other chances -- chiefly the three October presidential debates and the ad blitz enabled by his financial advantage. But as things stand, the fact that Romney is still behind after the conventions -- indeed, more behind than he was before -- is a very troubling sign for his campaign.