While Mitt Romney clearly did some damage in the debate, a raft of swing state polls from major news outlets Thursday indicate President Obama may have put a floor on his drop.
Nervous Democrats told TPM earlier in the week that they were eagerly anticipating state results from the major national pollsters before deciding whether Romney had taken the lead in the race outright -- suggesting a full-fledged freakout on the left could start as early as today.
While there's been an array of state and national numbers over the last few days, two sets of polls from NBC/WSJ/Marist and CBS/NYT/Quinnipiac represent some of the first results from top outlets that polling analysts tend to lend the most credibility. And the numbers, while improved for Romney, still show Obama with an advantage in key states.
Most important: Ohio, a likely must-win for Romney where Obama has held a solid lead in recent weeks. NBC/WSJ pegs the race at 51-45 for Obama, a 2-point bounce for Romney since their last poll with the president's own support remaining steady. It's the second post-debate poll of Ohio from a major news organization to show Obama breaking the 50 percent barrier -- CNN put him up 51-47.
"The reality is that if there's a preponderance of solid polling showing Ohio squarely in Obama's corner, Romney remains in trouble," Blake Zeff, a Democratic strategist, told TPM. "I'd like to see more polls there before reaching any conclusions, but today's is a start."
Regardless of the polling, however, Zeff added that it may take a solid debate performance from Obama in New York next week to reassure jittery supporters.
In another encouraging takeaway for Democrats, NBC/WSJ found that Democrats' ground game may be paying dividends in early voting. Obama is winning Ohioans who have already cast their ballot by a 63-37 margin, and they make up 1 in 5 of the poll's respondents. Early voting began the day before the first debate, giving Romney an opportunity to potentially bank some ballots ahead of Election Day with his strong performance, but it seems from NBC's results that Obama still has the edge there. Some 92 percent of voters also said their minds were made up before the debate, suggesting that Romney may have somewhat small -- though still significant -- base to court in the final weeks.
Another key state is Virginia, which could put Obama over the top in a number of hypothetical electoral scenarios that have him losing Ohio and Florida. Here the two pollsters diverged. CBS/NYT found Obama actually gaining on Romney to move into a 51-46 lead, even in the immediate aftermath of a debate that the vast majority of state voters thought the president lost. NBC found things closer at 48-47 Romney, a shift from a 48-46 edge for Obama in their previous poll.
Other swing states polled suggested a tight race, but one whose margins are little changed from before the debate. CBS/NYT put Wisconsin at 50-47 Obama and Colorado at 47-48 Romney. NBC/WSJ found Florida essentially tied at 48-47 Obama, the same margin as before the debate.
Obama aides told the National Journal on Wednesday that their own state polls are showing similar numbers: tighter, but not catastrophic.
As the New York Times' Nate Silver pointed out, Romney has received a bigger post-debate bump on average in national polls, where he's moved into a tie or small lead, than in swing state polls, where Obama looks to still be a narrow favorite. Obama can lose a number of contested swing states that he won in 2008 and still come out with a victory, but Romney needs to come close to running the table to eke out an electoral college win.
So while Romney has clearly made huge strides since the debate, there are indications that he may not have cleared that crucial state level hurdle he needs. It's a calming sign for Democrats -- at least until the next debate.