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Mitt Romney leads President Obama by five percentage points among likely voters in the nation’s top battlegrounds, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, and he has growing enthusiasm among women to thank.Swing States poll: Women push Romney into lead

IF YOU weren’t sure how important Candy Crowley’s role is tomorrow and why everyone is pitching what it could mean, the latest poll revealing a move to Mitt by women draws the picture clearly.

Connecting with average voters isn’t Mitt Romney’s strong suit. Tuesday’s town hall is a chance for him to wipe this image away, while adding to his first debate performance impression.

Chuck Todd, political director of NBC News, beat the USA Today/Gallup Poll, analyzing the importance of tomorrow’s debate on “Morning Joe” this morning. It likely got the attention of both campaigns, because he teased what is now showing in the new poll.

TODD: I think we’re both being very hesitant to hype this like that. But I feel like this one is that big. Because, you know, there’s something that happened in the campaign. It wasn’t just that Romney got in with that first debate and it sort of — you know, at first you heard Democrats saying oh, Republicans are just coming home. And that’s what tightened the polls. And in fact, I actually heard some Republicans say that. I have to say, in the private data that I’ve heard about over the last couple of days and the last 72 hours plus what you’re seeing, I feel like there has been a structural shift. We’re no longer in this “it’s even, but the president has these advantages.” The “but the president has these advantages” in the battleground states I think is gone. Yes, the president has an advantage in Ohio, but we’re starting to see a consistent Romney, very narrow, but a Romney lead in places like Florida. We’re seeing Colorado totally dead even. Iowa closing. So I think that there is something structural that happened. And that’s why this debate, critical time. If the president doesn’t show up he could end up in a deficit where I don’t know if one more debate could make it up. [transcript via Newsbusters]

The Obama campaign has to know this and it’s certain Barack Obama isn’t going to allow what happened in the first debate to repeat.

Chuck Todd goes on to say that if Obama doesn’t show up, so to speak, it could solidify what Romney gained in the first debate to such an extent that the last debate won’t be enough to fix Obama’s “deficit” with voters.

I’d add one other thing. That is, even if Obama has a good performace, if Romney battles him equally while also relating to the voters asking the questions, it is likely to make as big a difference to his image as the first debate did.

Pollster Mark Blumenthal maintains that Obama’s battleground advantage remains.

Nate Silver continues to report an overwhelming advantage for Barack Obama, citing Monday’s Washington Post/ABC News poll.

We will see what the rest of Monday’s polling data brings, but The Washington Post and ABC News poll has the potential to be influential on the forecast, in the same way that a Pew Research poll showing a sharp break to Mr. Romney was last week.

… You should be able to see from this why The Washington Post’s poll is potentially important. With it, the case is clearer that Mr. Obama has recovered from his post-debate lows, although he has almost assuredly not made up all the ground he lost.

Silver may want to weigh in on the shift by women, because we will be the difference no matter who wins.

One other thing to note, my initial instincts that Virginia would go red for Romney, after all the hype of an eventual Obama win in the state, looks to be manifesting. But it is incredibly tight.

Shorter: tomorrow’s town hall matters. …to both candidates.

It also proves what I’ve been writing, which is women no longer vote on reproductive rights alone, something most women who vote can take care of themselves. We are economic voters, because we are CFO’s of our families, as Maria Shriver proved in her study, but also because we have our financial dreams beyond what is connected to a spouse.

One cautionary note is that already the Gallup numbers are being considered as an outlier. Team Obama has sent a memo out with supporting evidence to rebut this USA Today/Gallup poll.

 The latest Gallup/ USA Today Battleground survey showing President Obama and Governor Romney tied with women in battleground states (48-48) is an extreme outlier, defying the trends seen in every other battleground and national poll.
 This result underscores deep flaws in Gallup’s likely voter screen.

 Only 2 years ago the distortions in Gallup’s likely voter screen were exposed, leaving Gallup’s survey 9 points off the mark just days before the election.
 Gallup’s likely voter model predicted a 15 point advantage for Republicans, 55-40, on October 31, 2010.
 The final result was a 6 point margin, 51-45.
 That year, Gallup’s registered voter survey was much closer to reality at 48-44.

 Gallup’s data is once again far out of line with other public pollsters.
 In 14 state polls conducted across 8 swing states since October 4, President Obama leads among women in every single one.
 President Obama has a double-digit among women lead in 10 of these polls, including several surveys where the overall horserace is close or the President is behind.
 On average, President Obama leads among women by 10.3 points and overall by 2.3 points. (See table on page 2 for results)

 We believe the problem with Gallup’s outlying data is rooted in their 7 question likely voter screen, which distorts the composition of likely voters, leading to erratic and inaccurate results.
 In Gallup’s current survey, Obama leads women by 53-44 among registered voters in the Battleground States, which is closely aligned with results from other pollsters.
 It is only when the likely voter screen is applied that their results become so out of step.

 Several of the likely voter questions create a bias against groups inclined to support Obama.
 For example, Gallup asks voters both whether they have voted in their precinct before and where people in their neighborhood go to vote.
 This creates a bias against registered voters who more likely to move from time to time, such as young voters, renters, minorities and urban dwellers, all of whom tend to lean toward the President.

 In the past, Gallup’s justification for such outlying numbers is that they are providing a snapshot of voter attitudes during a particular time period, not predicting the outcome of the election. But this implausible result among women appears to not even provide an accurate reflection on the electorate today, making its value questionable.


Photo: President Barack Obama watches the Vice Presidential debate aboard Air Force One with staff, en route to Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, from Florida, Oct. 11, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)