Polls have been close for months but up until the last couple of weeks, nearly every poll showed President Obama with a slight lead. In the last two weeks this has reverse and Romney now has the slight lead overall and is gaining strength in most swing states. He is even gaining in states that seemed to be a lock for Obama a month ago. What happened? There is more at work here than one debate performance.
Obama has three basic problems. His campaign made some bad choices in its handling of Mitt Romney, the economy is still doing poorly, and Obama has expressed no vision for his second term.
In 2008, the electorate was tired of George W. Bush. A lot of the initial enthusiasm for Obama was that he was the anti-Bush. He made a lot of promises, twice as many as most presidential candidates by Politifact's count, but few people paid attention. What they understood was that "Hope and Change" were code words for "not Bush". When the economy crashed just before the election it strengthened Obama's campaign. Bush had crashed the economy and the anti-Bush would save it. Obama even got a Nobel Peace Prize for being the anti-Bush. Obama is still trying to run on this by equating Romney and Bush and warning against a return to the policies that caused the crash in the first place (which were not what he says they were).
But Bush is long-gone. Obama is trying hard to run as the anti-Romney but Bush was a known quantity and Romney is not.
The Obama campaign decided that their best chance was to define Romney before he could define himself. Both Obama (Hope and Change) and Clinton (the Man from Hope) came up with an unbeatable narrative during their initial campaigns. Romney had the makings of one as a successful businessman so the Obama campaign decided to poison that image. They were sure that once they took away Romney's business career and his term as governor that he would be left with likability and "no one likes Mitt Romney".
So they struck early and hard. They carpet bombed Ohio and other swing states during the primaries. And it worked for a long time. But there is a reason that most campaigns wait until Labor Day before going into high gear. You can't keep repeating the same attacks forever. They lose their sting through repetition. The Obama has nothing substantive to attack Romney on so it is reduced to using Big Bird and Binder Full of Women.
They also made a mistake on content. Originally they planned on attacking Romney as a man with no moral core. Attacking a candidate for being a flip flopper often works and Romney has changed positions on major topics over his career. But, possibly at Bill Clinton's urging, they changed and attacked Romney as being too conservative. Obama warned that Romney was the most conservative candidate on the ballot since Goldwater. This was a strange claim since few people even remember who Goldwater was (he ran before Obama was born). Eventually they settled on the claim that Romney wants to raise people's taxes in order to give tax breaks to the rich and send jobs overseas.
The months of negative advertising probably backfired. Most people had never seen more than a ten second soundbite of Romney prior to the debates. The real Romney is fairly moderate (which is why primary voters kept flirting with more conservative candidates during the primaries). He sounds reasonable. People who planned on sitting out the election gave Romney a second look and decided that he isn't so bad anyway. Romney didn't need to win the debated to attract these voters. He only had to look like a creditable alternative to Obama.
Obama likes to brag about the number of jobs created during his administration. In the last couple of weeks he had put out ads bragging about how well "his" recovery is going. The problem here is that you cannot manufacture a "morning in America" with feel-good ads. Obama had to cherry-pick his numbers. He quoted private-sector job growth while ignoring public-sector job loss and he only started counting from the lowest point. If you start counting from his inauguration then we are barely even. If you start at the height of employment under Bush then the economy is in terrible shape. People knew this even before Romney pointed out that job growth under Reagan was twice what it is now and that the economy is slowing down instead of speeding up.
You have to ask yourself, if the economy is doing so well then why is the Fed doing a third round of stimulus?
Romney is often criticized for being vague about his plans but he has at least announced them. Obama's reelection theme is "Forward" but he does not tell us where he is going. We know that he had an opertunity to pass a whole slate of legislation when his party controlled both houses of Congress and he squandered it by limiting his focus to Obamacare. He has suggested that his reelection would somehow shock the Republicans into working with him but if this fails, what does he hope to accomplish?
Obama has been asked this question multiple times. The best that he can come up with is that he wants to maintain a holding action to keep his accomplishments from being rolled back. This isn't much of a vision but "Forward" makes a better slogan than "Stand Still".
Obama's other reason for running - that he really, really hates Romney and will do anything to keep him out of the White House - it even less inspiring to voters.
So far, after months of campaigning, all we know for sure is that Obama wants to raise taxes on the rich and increase government spending. He isn't even willing to cut the amount we are spending on wars (which, as he points out are paid for with borrowed money). Instead he wants to redirect that money to other spending.
This is not a coherent case for reelection.
A lot of voters still have fond feelings for Obama and the Democrats are solidly behind him regardless of how poor a job he does but that leaves enough swing voters to turn the election against him.