Wednesday's debate between President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney could change the momentum of the presidential race, but its effects may not be clear for a day or more, says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.
Despite the lead Obama has taken in major public opinion polls, Kohut said, as many as 21% of voters say they have not firmly decided how to vote, and that means the election is still up for grabs.
Kohut, who has been conducting national polls for more than 40 years, appeared on a Google+ Hangout conducted by The Times on Wednesday, before the debate.
"There are so many pluses and minuses to both of these candidates for the voters who are not committed that it could well be a changeable situation," he said.
And though not every presidential debate is a turning point, there are examples of debates that had dramatic effects on the campaign: the 1980 debate that allowed challenger Ronald Reagan to leap ahead of then-President Jimmy Carter, for example, and the 2000 debates that helped GOP candidate George W. Bush catch up with then-Vice President Al Gore.
Just don’t expect to know the impact of the debate tonight, Kohut warned. The full effect won’t become clear for at least a day or two -- the time all those uncommitted voters need to absorb news coverage of the debate and decide what they think.
“If one of them breaks away, you’ll get a majority or a plurality who say it was Romney or Obama who won the debate,” he said.
What does Romney need to do? “Romney’s problem, which he did not solve at the convention, is that people don’t like him,” Kohut said, pointing to the high percentage of voters who say they have an “unfavorable” view of the candidate. “He’s got to improve his connection with voters … give voters a greater sense of comfort about him, about his being straightforward and willing to take unpopular stands.”
That’s a tall order for one 90-minute debate. But tonight’s debate is only the first of three, and it’s still almost five weeks before election day -- enough time for the race to turn around.
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus