Mitt Romney's stellar debate performance injected new energy, enthusiasm and money into his presidential campaign. National polls now show the race tied with less than a month to go. But have the fundamental factors governing this election changed? Not really. Not yet.
Just a few weeks ago, Republicans were wringing hands, pointing fingers and hanging heads. Now it's the Democrats' turn. A typical wail of dismay came from blogger Andrew Sullivan, who headlined his post on The Daily Beast, "Did Obama Just Throw the Entire Election Away?" The president, kvetched Sullivan, "has, at a critical moment, deeply depressed his base."
But if you step back from the daily -- even hourly --frenzy to identify "turning points" and "game changers," the campaign looks a bit different. Many of the essential elements -- geography and demography, organization and personality -- still favor President Barack Obama.
Romney's victory in the first debate is clearly having a positive impact. In the latest Pew Research Center survey, his favorable rating broke 50 percent for the first time, and among Romney supporters, two out of three now feel strongly about their choice. The dynamism in Republican ranks is no longer fueled just by hatred of Obama; after a long and rocky courtship, many GOP'ers seem ready to embrace their candidate.
Despite the latest improvement in jobless numbers, the economic recovery remains sluggish. The real unemployment rate is about 15 percent when discouraged and part-time workers are included. Drops in real income and wealth erode family wallets and well-being. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate, accurately described plenty of disillusioned young adults who are living in their parents' basements, gazing sadly at fading Obama posters.
Romney has shrewdly started to tell personal stories on the stump, softening his image as a hard-nosed, hard-hearted business executive who relates to ordinary folks only when he fires them. When he talks about drawing up a will for a dying 14-year-old, giving away the young man's skateboard and fishing rod, he becomes a far more appealing figure.
But Romney's surge goes only so far. The basic architecture of the race has not changed, starting with geography. Yes, polls have narrowed in swing states such as Florida and Virginia, but the independent website Real Clear Politics still puts Obama ahead in 21 states with 251 electoral votes, 19 shy of the magic number of 270. As ABC's political director Amy Walter concludes, this map leaves Romney with "a very narrow path to (victory) and no room for error."
Demography has not changed, either. Obama is still getting more than 90 percent of the black vote and about 70 percent of the Hispanic vote. Democrats should worry that in the Pew survey, Obama's share of the white female vote dropped sharply, but in several swing states -- Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Florida -- a strong minority turnout could still pull the president across the line.
That's why a third fundamental, organization, is so critical. Team Obama showed its muscle last month by pulling in more than $180 million, much of it raised in small sums online. About 570,000 donors gave for the first time, and each one of them becomes a potential campaign worker, organizer and cheerleader. Romney has to convince some Obama voters from four years ago to switch sides; the president only has to get his proven supporters to the polls.
A fourth fundamental is the economy. In the Pew survey, voters express more confidence in Romney's job-creating abilities, but some underlying trends favor the president. As Walter points out, the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index has risen for six straight weeks, the longest such stretch in six years. The number of Americans who think the country is headed in the wrong direction remains high, but it has dropped by 18 points in a year. The stock market keeps setting new records. Obama's auto bailout helps him in states such as Ohio and Michigan.
The final fundamental is personality. Romney's stories are effective, but he starts from far behind. When Pew asked which candidate "connects well with ordinary Americans," Obama maintained a 29-point lead. Three out of four still think Romney's policies would favor the wealthy, and even though he has renounced his own comments deriding the "47 percent" of Americans who feel like "victims," Team Obama will repeat that damning clip endlessly in its advertising.
This election is much closer than Democrats expected a month ago. But if you look behind the daily polls and examine the basic shape of the contest, the president still holds an advantage.