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Presidential Debate: Romney Must Score on the Economy Tonight to Win Race, Says Nate Silver

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With just hours to go before the first presidential election debate there's another debate involving the campaigns—a debate about presidential polls. Republicans argue the polls—which show President Barack Obama ahead by an average four points—are biased in favor of the president. Democrats maintain that the polls are correctly showing the president pulling ahead of his opponent Mitt Romney.

Who's right?

Nate Silver, who tracks political polls at the New York Time's fivethirtyeight.com blog which he founded, says these controversies are nothing new. The Democrats in 2004 had the same complaints when Republicans were leading. The polls were proven right.

"Now it's the Republicans turn where they're losing in the polls," says Silver, adding those complaints "involve an outright denial of reality."

Silver gives Obama 86% odds of winning the election but warns that polls can miss and the underdog could turn top dog. That's what happened in 1948 when President Harry Truman trailing New York Governor Thomas Dewey by 5 points late in the campaign, according to the one and only poll at that time, won the race with "a fairly solid margin…to the surprise of a great many people," says Silver

But the odds are low that the multiple polls today are wrong. Silver says only one in 10 presidential candidates trailing as late as October 1 historically comes back to win an election.

"Romney is a pretty substantial underdog right now," says Silver, who's also the author of "The Signal and the Noise: Why so Many Predictions Fail—but Some Don't," a new book about forecasting in politics and other arenas.

Tonight's debate may be Romney's best chance to turn the race around, says Silver. The focus is the economy, which is Obama's weak spot, and historically first debates tend to benefit the challenger, adding 1 to 2 points to his poll numbers. If Romney gets that bounce, the race could conceivably tighten to an almost tie since on average Obama has just a 3.5 percentage point lead over Romney. But if Romney doesn't get that traditional first debate bounce, "then you can say that Obama is 90% plus" ahead, says Silver.

There's also the possibility of an October surprise like the one that helped Nixon defeat McGovern in 1972 when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced that "peace is at hand" to end the Vietnam War. That didn't happen for another 2-1/2 years.

This year that surprise could be a major gaffe in one of the presidential debates, an unexpected foreign policy event or an economic report that's off the charts on the downside. A negative or flat payrolls number, Silver says, "could change the tone of the debate a lot."

Two more jobs reports will be released before Election Day, which is now less than five weeks away.

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