Should Obama Supporters Start Freaking Out?

Benjy Sarlin
Should Obama Supporters Start Freaking Out?

No one on the left is making the case that President Obama's listless first debate against Mitt Romney was a good thing for the campaign. The question now is how worried they should be amid early post-debate polling showing a Mitt Romney surge. Mild concern? Creeping fear? Full-blown freakout?

The undisputed captain of Team Freakout is Newsweek's Andrew Sullivan, the longtime Obama supporter who has written a number of cover stories advocating for his campaign. His post-debate analysis of how Obama "plummeted into near-oblivion" is so spectacularly glum that it spawned its own parody account on Twitter, @SullyPanic (sample tweet: "After Wednesday's debate I'm leaving the Catholic church. God is dead.")

Team Freakout hit maximum garment-rending levels after a poll from the respected Pew Research Center dropped Monday showing Obama down 4 to Romney, a total collapse from Pew's last survey in September showing the president with an 8-point lead. Another national poll by Democratic PPP found Romney taking a 2-point lead, his first of the year.

That said, more optimistic Democrats found several mitigating factors to keep them away from the ledge. Most notably, several pollsters, including Rasmussen, Gallup, PPP, and ABC News, found Romney surging (albeit less dramatically) in their own numbers -- but only in the immediate aftermath of the debate. By the weekend, things seemed to be shifting back towards Obama. The bulk of Pew's numbers came Thursday and Friday.

Tom Jensen, a pollster for the Democratic PPP, told TPM that he was still reserving judgment for now in the case of Team Freakout vs. Team Optimism.

"I am concerned about the polls in the last week, but not quite to the freaking out point," he said. "I've been telling people since the Democratic convention that something crazy would have to happen for Obama not to win. I think the incredibly lopsided debate does qualify as 'something crazy' and that who will win is a much more uncertain question than it was a week ago."

While Romney's apparent dropoff in weekend polling was a positive sign for Democrats, Jensen suggested Democrats may need to wait a few days before either going nuclear or backing down to Defcon 5.

"I think if Romney's continuing to run evenish nationally a week from now and if we're starting to see some toss up or Romney leaning swing state [polls] from legitimate companies then it might be freak out time," he said.

New York Times polling guru Nate Silver offered up a similar plea for calm on his blog. In addition to Romney possibly already coming back down to earth from his post-debate highs, Silver noted that most of the scariest swing state polls to emerge so far are from Republican-leaning outlets that actually pegged Obama at the same weak position when he had a dominant lead in national polls as well.

One Democratic strategist familiar with polling who didn't want his name used due to his client list told TPM the polls he's seeing in all-important swing states aren't making him nervous. Yet.

"Nobody should be freaking out because we have yet to see a lot of good quality data in any of the swing states," the strategist said. "I've already seen some quality polls in some of the swing states that show things to be relatively stable."

He dismissed national polling as "largely irrelevant," but did say movement for Romney post-debate is real.

"There was always going to be a tightening. Am I dismissing the movement? No," he said. "Clearly something's going on when 70 million people watch the debate. There's clearly an interest in this stuff that's at an all time high. So we can't dismiss it but I think that the notion that the sky is falling is probably overdone."