Last evening’s presidential debate was overly hyped as a potential turning point for Mitt Romney. He needed the debate to recover from recent gaffes and to show he’s still in the game. By nearly all press accounts, Romney won the debate and it appears that his Etch-a-Sketch moment has finally arrived. It is undeniable that Romney outperformed Obama and the primary debates likely contributed a great deal to prepping him for the mano-a-mano last night. Analysis was largely based on his ability to play offense and get the president on the defense, as well as the Republican candidate’s ability to appear presidential. His confidence and comfort in the debate format was contrasted in media accounts by President Obama’s “listlessness,” “nervousness,” and “ill-at-ease on stage.” Obama was also accused of being “rusty,” “sluggish,” for lacking Romney’s “spark, energy and precision” and for keeping it civil (many commentators wanted Obama to invoke his campaigns key attacks on Romney). By many media (especially television) accounts, the debate came down to delivery, pose and style, rather than a dissection of substance, harkening back to the first 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in which the outcome was largely decided by appearance. What can we say, we are a society jaded by Hollywood. To be fair, there were of course real journalists who went beyond the superficial to note that it was a substantive debate over the role of government.
But how the candidates look and perform on stage also matters voters. According to a post-debate CNN poll, two thirds of voters thought that Romney won, while one quarter of voters said President Obama did. According to a CBS instant poll of 500 uncommitted voters, 46 percent said Romney won, 22 percent said they believed the president was the winner, and 32 percent called it a tie. Moreover, the debate likely helped improve Romney’s image among voters as the Republican candidate received a post-debate gain in the percentage of uncommitted voters who said they believed the candidate cares about their needs – from 30 percent pre-debate to 63 percent post-debate. Meanwhile, 53 percent of uncommitted voters said they believe President Obama cares about their issues pre-debate compared to 69 percent post-debate. Yet, it is entirely unclear whether the instant poll responses will translate into real overall candidate favorability gains.
In many ways, it is much easier to be a challenging candidate making promises and criticizing the record of the incumbent, than it is for an incumbent to defend his record. But, Obama did not take the opportunity in the debate to pursue a line of attack against the Republican candidate to remind the voters of his recent gaffes. Instead, Obama was on the defense last night.
So how much does Romney’s win really matter? As I noted last week, political scientists have repeatedly shown that presidential debates do not matter in terms of shifting preferences of voters enough to alter elections. Those who tune in to the presidential debates usually do so to root on their team rather than to learn something new. By October, minds have been decided, and even the most salient presidential debates only swing polls by roughly one to three percentage points. A fatal gaffe, however, that swings polls just before a close election, could be consequential as it was in the Gore v. Bush 2000 election.
The real win coming out of the debate for Romney is his campaign’s ability to hit the re-set button. The debate gives the Romney campaign fresh momentum after a dreary few weeks of the candidate bogged down by his 47 percent remarks and premature politicization of the embassy attacks in the Middle East. Finally, the campaign has an opening in the 24-hours news cycle to spin a more positive image of the candidate. It will be interesting to see the Nielsen ratings for the debate and how many people both tuned in to watch the debate (the current estimate is roughly 60 million), but perhaps more importantly, how many stayed tuned in given the debate’s wonky focus. It’s possible that more Americans will be exposed to post-debate analysis from their media source of choice than to have watched or listened to the full debate, which could further benefit the Romney restart.
Moreover, Romney used the debate opportunity to present new positions to voters. I was particularly surprised by Romney’s pledge of no new tax cuts for the wealthy. Specifically, he said “I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans,” despite his previous campaign promise for a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut for all Americans. The position may put the candidate at odds with others in his party who view tax cuts, especially for the wealthy, as means for stimulating economic growth.
Romney also re-cast himself as a champion of the “middle” guy. He emphasized reducing the tax rate for “middle-income families” and he criticized the president’s policies, arguing:
There's no question in my mind that if the president were to be re-elected you'll continue to see a middle-class squeeze with incomes going down and prices going up. I'll get incomes up again.
Romney also softened the edges of his platform, sometimes blurring the lines between his position and that of President Obama. Romney noted for example that “regulation is essential,” and that “neither the president nor I are proposing any changes for any current retirees or near retirees, either to Social Security or Medicare.” He also said he agreed with the president on reducing the costs of healthcare, as well as with some of the administration’s Race to the Top education ideas. And Obama also noted areas in which he agreed with Romney. In reality, the debates and the campaigns exaggerate partisan differences in a polarized political environment as a means for winning the election.
What were your impressions of the debate and post-debate analysis? Was your mind changed?