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“Tack to Center” Not Key to Romney’s Post-Debate Surge

Following Romney’s strong debate performance last week, political analysts have been working overtime trying to explain his boost in the polls. What did Romney say or do to pull voters away from the President? The popular theory is that Romney successfully tacked to the center, winning over moderate voters leery of his more conservative positions.

But one chart from The Monkey Cage (h/t Matt Yglesias) suggests a simpler explanation. According to a number of recent YouGov surveys, voters have consistently rated themselves as ideologically closer to Romney than Obama—even in the months when Obama was leading the polls:

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Romney may not have needed this pivot to the center anyway.  Even though he is perceived as more conservative than the average voter—and increasingly so—he is still closer to the average voter than is Obama. This belies the notion that Romney’s conservative positions in the primary have damaged him in the general election. Romney’s struggles up until his debate win were not about ideology.  And if this debate has a long-term effect on the race, it may not involve making voters see him as more moderate.  In fact, although Romney’s embrace of conservatism has attracted more commentary, Obama’s perceived liberalism could prove the bigger liability in November.

If true, this casts the debate in a completely different light. It wasn’t that voters saw Romney as too conservative; they didn’t think he was presidential enough to be a viable alternative. The debate radically changed that perception, however. Romney looked more presidential than Obama. As a result, many voters who were reluctantly going with Obama because they thought the other guy was unqualified changed their minds. Given a choice between two viable candidates, many voters suddenly felt like they were free to choose a candidate whose ideology more closely matched their own.

Romney didn’t shift ideologically; he passed a threshold test.

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