Here is what one smart Republican insider thinks at the moment (quoting roughly): “It’s close. My sense was that we were up by 4 or 5. Now it’s down to a 0 to 1 or 2-point lead. If the election were held today Bush would still win, but it would be a long night. The first debate, people were willing to cut him a break. We’re seeing a cumulative effect of the two debates. The second debate, in particular, changed the dynamic among women. They thought he was too aggressive. The guys loved it, women were not quite as enthused. He didn’t do badly, but it moved. He lost ground among married women with kids and women over the age of 55. There has also been an erosion among independent males, but that may have more to do with the weak jobs number.
The bad news is that it moved, the good news is that Bush can get them back if he has a good performance tonight. Independent males will be paying particular attention to economic issues tonight. Marrieds with kids will be paying attention to education and domestic security. Women 55 and over will pay attention to health care, Social Security, and general economic issues. One thing I would look for is for Bush to be very strong on education. It’s an issue he knows well and is passionate about and I’m expecting it will be one of his real strengths in this debate. It was in 2000.
The next three to five days are a real inflection point that will set the equilibrium for the rest of the race. It will force one side or the other to try to change that equilibrium with paid advertising or through the media, and that’s going to be tough. Prior to the debates, the equilibrium was a 5-point Bush lead. Kerry had to change the equilibrium and he did. It’s just going to be a lot harder for one of the candidates to do that after tonight, through paid media. [Asked how Gore came back from a roughly 10-point deficit in October 2000.] If you look at it, among registered voters it was pretty much even in 2000. It shows how the registered voter number is the better one to look at. In 2000, it got toward the end, and African-American voters got fired up by their churches, and the union machines got engaged.”