Defining the Horse Race’s New Normal

After two weeks of turbulence and furor over highly contrasting measurements of the presidential contest–not just by polls, but via CW–today’s new WaPo/ABC and Politico/Battleground/GWU national surveys arrive today with the sodden weight of superficial authority. The former puts Obama up by 3 points (49/46) among LVs; the latter has him up 49/48. But perhaps more importantly: In both cases, the numbers are virtually identical to those taken by the same firms before the first presidential debate.

The powerful suggestion is that the “Romney surge,” at least in national polls, is over, and we’re looking at a contest in which Obama maintains a small lead–not one in which excited conservatives are about to snake-dance to the polls to lift Mitt to a smashing victory over a dispirited president and his demoralized troops.

And this, for better or worse, is going to be the background that will frame MSM coverage of tomorrow night’s second debate. Yes, there will be an enormous amount of talk about Obama’s “energy level,” setting an extremely low threshold for estimates of the president’s engagement in his own campaign that he ought to be able to manage to his advantage. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, will have to find ways in a less than ideal debate format to reinforce the fragile new impression that he’s the guy who governed Massachusetts from 2003-2007 rather than the guy he’s been almost every moment since.

Put it all together and there will be enormous pressure on media types to pick a winner tomorrow night and then frantically ensure the public agrees with that assessment. This in turn will prime spotlights to find a “zinger” or some sort of “defining exchange” that can be used to encapsulate the event and help viewers avoid any deeper assessments of what they just saw.

In other words, get ready for some serious political and media malpractice.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.