Discuss as:

First Thoughts: High stakes

High stakes for tomorrow night’s debate… The town-hall format could prove or disprove that Romney is out of touch with middle-class concerns… What changed and what didn’t since the first debate… What if it’s the demography, stupid?... Ryan campaigns in Wisconsin and Ohio, while First Lady Michelle Obama is also in Ohio.

*** High stakes: With new national polls (Washington Post/ABC, Politico) showing a very close contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney, as well as tightening battleground-state internals that we’ve heard about, the stakes for tomorrow night’s debate couldn’t be any higher, especially for the incumbent president. Not only is there a sense of urgency for Obama to be more aggressive at this second presidential debate, the town-hall format presents an opportunity and challenge for Romney: It will either prove the Obama argument that the GOP nominee is out of touch with middle-class concerns, or it can help knock it down. We know Romney has been practicing for this debate out in the open (holding town halls, interacting more with voters). The president actually hasn’t done a town hall in a LONG time, let alone interact with actual reporters (but we digress). There’s the joke that tomorrow’s debate is the most important one since the last one -- or until the next one. But kidding aside, there’s a strong argument this debate is the most pivotal with next week’s debate destined as a coda (since it’s a one-topic debate on foreign policy).

Although President Obama has been more likeable in polls, Mitt Romney has had a lot more recent practice in town hall settings. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

*** In touch or out of touch? What Romney accomplished with the first debate was to get into the game -- make the playoffs, if you will. What this debate now provides him is an opportunity to blow up the stereotype that he doesn’t understand the plight of the average American. This is THE reason the president has a firewall of sorts in the Midwest, and it’s why this debate is so crucial for him. If he can’t amplify the message his campaign has been making for months about Romney at a debate that features real people, then how is a third debate going to help? And while polls (including our recent NBC/WSJ/Marist surveys of the most important battleground states) have shown only a small movement, we’ve now reached the stage of the race when the small movement matters.

President Obama and Mitt Romney have been studying in virtual seclusion, preparing to fend off questions that have dogged their campaigns. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

*** What changed and what didn’t since the first debate: According to the new Washington Post/ABC poll (conducted Oct. 10-13), some things DID change since the first debate. Per the poll, 35% say they have a better opinion of Romney (vs. 14% who have a worse opinion and 48% who say their views are unchanged). That’s compared with 19% who have a worse opinion of Obama (vs. 9% who have a better opinion of him and 70% who are unchanged). Also, Romney voters say they are more enthusiastic about their candidate than they were last month. But here’s what DIDN’T change: Obama is up by Romney among three points among likely voters, 49%-46% (compared with 49%-47% before the debate), and seven points among registered voters, 50%-43% (vs. 49%-44% last month). What’s more, Obama’s approval rating is at or above 50%, where it was in September. The same dynamic is true of the new Politico/George Washington University poll -- Romney is viewed as more likeable, while the head-to-head matchup is essentially unchanged.

How will this week's town hall debate format benefit and work against both Mitt Romney and President Obama? What to make of the recent round of polls? NBC News' Chuck Todd joins Morning Joe to discuss.

*** What if it's the demography, stupid: One of the more powerful undercurrents of this election has been the demographic advantage for the Democrats that every poll has found, with the degree of the advantage dependent on enthusiasm levels. The bottom line: Demography is an advantage for President Obama -- and a challenge for Mitt Romney. Our pollsters did an in-depth look at these fundamental shifts using all of the data we’ve collected over the last four month for the national NBC/WSJ poll. Our pollsters merged the numbers among likely voters from our two post-convention surveys from September, as well as our pre-convention June, July, and August polls and treated them as separate MEGA-surveys to compare with the 2008 exit poll. The results: Obama has seen erosion among men, whites (especially white independents), Midwest voters, and independents from what we saw in the 2008 exit poll. But that erosion has been offset somewhat by gains among Latinos (winning them 66%-32% in '08 vs. 67%-25% June-Aug. and 71%-22% in Sept.), Democrats (from 89%-10% in '08 to 92%-5% June-Aug. and 93%-5% in Sept.), and union households (from 59%-39% in '08 to 59%-36% in June-Aug. and 61%-34% in Sept.).

Reuters, Getty Images

In the final push in the 2012 presidential election, candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama make their last appeals to voters.

*** What to watch for on Election Night: But most remarkably, Obama has remained steady with African Americans (95%-4% in '08, 95%-3% June-Aug., and 93%-3% in Sept.) women (from 56%-43% in '08 to 52%-42% June-Aug. and 54%-42% in Sept.) white women (46%-53% in '08 vs. 42%-51% June-Aug. and 43%-54% in Sept.), and young voters 18-29 (from 66%-32% in '08 to 53%-42% June-Aug. and 60%-35% in Sept.). This is all a challenge for Romney: If he is hitting numbers among these demographic groups close to what John McCain got four years ago -- when he lost 53%-46% -- it will be very difficult to keep Obama below 50% on Election Night. So three weeks from now, when you're looking at the early exit polls, these demographic numbers will be important to follow: Is Obama winning Latinos by more than 66%? Is he up by double digits with women? Is he is in the 60% range with the youngest voters? And is he getting 40% of the white vote? If the answer is yes, you're looking at an Obama victory; if it's no, that's what a Romney win looks like. 

Carolyn Kaster / AP

President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign fundraiser at the JW Marriott Marquis Miami, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, in Miami.

*** How much of Romney’s gains have come from red states? So here is where Romney has made inroads since the ’08 exits, according to our merged data: with men, independents, and Midwest voters. And here is where Obama’s coalition is pretty much intact (or better): with African Americans, Latinos, and women. But here is something to chew on regarding Romney’s inroads: How much of it is coming from red states that won’t decide this election? In 2008, McCain won the red states, 55%-43%. Yet our merged numbers show Romney up there 56%-37% in June-Aug. and 58%-38% in September. That’s compared with relatively stable numbers in the Democratic states (which Obama won 60%-38% in 2008 and where he was 56%-38% in June-Aug. and 60%-36% in September) and in the swing states (50%-48% for Obama in ’08 vs. 49%-43% in June-Aug. and 48%-48% in September). Also, another area where Romney has jumped up from McCain’s ‘08 number -- white evangelicals. Again, most of those voters reside in the red states.

*** On the trail: Paul Ryan holds a town hall in Waukesha, WI at 9:30 am ET before hitting a rally in Cincinnati, OH at 12:30 pm ET… First Lady Michelle Obama campaigns in Ohio, while Ann Romney is in Pennsylvania.

Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 1 day
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 7 days
Countdown to Election Day: 22 days

Click here to sign up for First Read emails.
Text FIRST to 622639, to sign up for First Read alerts to your mobile phone.
Check us out on Facebook and also on Twitter. Follow us @chucktodd, @mmurraypolitics, @DomenicoNBC, @brookebrower