Michael Barone

Wednesday night's presidential debate in which Mitt Romney shellacked Barack Obama attracted the biggest audience since the debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan seven days before the 1980 election.

About 70 million Americans watched, a little more than half the 131 million voter turnout in 2008. That's an estimate, because the ratings companies don't count those watching on C-SPAN, PBS or the Internet.

Did the debates matter? The first state polls, conducted by Rasmussen and We Ask America on Thursday night, suggest the answer is yes.

Rasmussen reported that Romney was down 1 point in Ohio. We Ask America had him up 1 there.

Rasmussen had Romney up 1 in Virginia. We Ask America had him up 3. And in Florida We Ask America had Romney up 3.

These states are important because the Obama campaign has spent millions on anti-Romney ads there, to build a firewall blocking Romney from getting to a 270-vote majority in the Electoral College.

The arithmetic is fairly simple. The 28 states plus the District of Columbia and one Nebraska congressional district Obama carried in 2008 have 359 electoral votes this year. Subtract Indiana, which has fallen off the target list, and the Nebraska district, and he's down to 347.

Subtract also the 15 electoral votes of North Carolina, which Team Obama hoped to contest but where it hasn't been spending much money lately, and you're down to 332.

Obama's next three closest states were Florida, Ohio and Virginia, which together have 60 electoral votes. In every other state he carried, he ran ahead of his 53 percent share of the national vote.

Up to the debate, the tri-state strategy seemed to be working. Obama carried Florida by 3 points in 2008, and the Realclearpolitics.com average of recent polls going into the debate showed him up 2 there.

Obama carried Ohio by 5 points, and pre-debate polling had him up 5 (I've rounded off the percentages and rounded .5s to the lower integer). Obama carried Virginia by 7 points, and pre-debate polling had him up 3.

In contrast, pre-debate polls had Obama lagging further behind his 2008 showing in five other target states -- Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and Wisconsin.

Not to worry, Obama strategists said. If we hold Florida, Ohio and Virginia, we've got 332 electoral votes, way over 270. We can afford to lose the 35 electoral votes in those other five states.

But what if the firewall doesn't hold? If the big three go for Romney, Obama is down to 272. If he loses one more state, he can join Al Gore on Current TV.

The Obama strategy didn't count on a debate performance like the one 70 million Americans watched Wednesday night.


Michael Barone

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. To find out more about Michael Barone, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2011 THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM