Obama Comes Back Strong But Debate’s Impact On Race Is Unclear
Last night's debate was rough and tumble, but it's unlikely to change the state of the race.
The Barack Obama that showed up at Hofstra University was very different from the Barack Obama who showed up two weeks ago in Denver, Colorado. Where that first Obama was awkward and seemed to resisting even defending himself from, last night’s Obama was feisty, aggressive, and far better prepared. For his part, Mitt Romney seemed slightly off kilter at times, no doubt because this was a format not well suited to his style and because the tone of the debate itself was far different from the substantive content we saw in the debate. The most striking thing about the debate, though, was the extent to which what was supposed to be a “Town Hall” quickly turned into a boxing match:
Competing for a shrinking sliver of undecided voters, many of them women, their engagements at times bordered on physical as they circled each other or bounded out of their seats while the other was speaking, at times more intent to argue than to address the questions over jobs, taxes, energy, immigration and a range of other issues.
Mr. Obama, criticized by his own party for a lackluster debate performance two weeks ago, this time pressed an attack that allowed him to often dictate the terms of the debate. But an unbowed Mr. Romney was there to meet him every time, and seemed to relish the opportunity to challenge a sitting president.
Mr. Obama’s assertive posture may well have stopped the clamor of concern from supporters that had been weighing on his campaign with three weeks and one more debate to go before the election.
The president’s broadsides started with a critique of Mr. Romney for his opposition to his administration’s automobile bailout in his first answer — “Governor Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt” — and ended more than 90 minutes later with an attack on Mr. Romney’s secretly taped comments about the “47 percent” of Americans who he said did not take responsibility for their own lives.
“When he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considers themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility — think about who he was talking about,” the president said toward the end of the debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
It was as if a different, highly charged president had taken the stage rather than the reluctant, disengaged-seeming candidate who showed up to meet Mr. Romney at their first debate two weeks ago.
Mr. Romney stayed acutely focused on Mr. Obama’s record in the face of it all, saying that the president had failed to deliver what he promised in his 2008 campaign and arguing repeatedly and strenuously, “We just can’t afford four more years like the last four years.”
He credited Mr. Obama for being “great as a speaker and describing his vision.” But then he brought down the ultimate hammer in a challenge to an incumbent: “That’s wonderful, except we have a record to look at. And that record shows he just hasn’t been able to cut the deficit, to put in place reforms for Medicare and Social Security to preserve them, to get us the rising incomes we need.”
The two took pains to fashion their arguments toward female voters, with the debate seeming at times directed entirely at them. Mr. Obama mentioned Mr. Romney’s vow to cut government funding for Planned Parenthood at least four times; Mr. Romney repeatedly mentioned that under Mr. Obama: “There are three and a half million more women living in poverty today than when the president took office. We don’t have to live like this.”
And Mr. Romney sought to broaden his appeal to women by softening his tone on reproductive issues, saying: “Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.”
Emphasizing his record of diversity as governor based on his own recruiting, he said, “I brought us whole binders full of women.”
It is a bit of conventional wisdom that undecided voters seek comity in their leaders. There was none of that Tuesday.
Ron Fournier characterized it, quite correctly, as a schoolyard fight:
Like two roughnecks squared off on a playground, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney invaded each other’s personal space, raised their voices, and fought. “It is just not true,” the president said. “It is true,” his rival replied. You could almost hear both men thinking: “Same to you and more of it.”
If you like to see presidential candidates fight for the job, if you want a passionate dialogue over big issues that matter, you got what you wanted on Tuesday night. If it’s civility you seek, you’re sunk.
Who won? The answer may be Obama, because his goal following a catastrophically sluggish first debate was so clear: Show some life. And, indeed, the president aggressively criticized Romney, labeling him a hypocrite and a liar who favors the rich at the expense of the middle class and poor
But Romney got his licks in, too, wrapping a miserable economy around the incumbent’s neck. “The middle class is getting crushed by the policies of a president who does not understand what it takes to get the economy working again,” Romney said.
Bottom line: Obama and Romney scored points while turning off independent voters with their point-scoring. Democratic and Republican partisans will find reason to celebrate the debate but it likely did nothing to reshape the closely fought race.
That was perhaps the most surprising thing about last night. The conventional wisdom for the past twenty years that it’s risky for candidates to become overly aggressive toward their opponents in these “Town Hall” format debates, largely because such a display can end up becoming off-putting to voters. The sight of two candidates essentially spending ninety minutes arguing at each other rather than talking to the voters would seem to be a symbol for the kind of partisan rancor that has been turning voters off for years. And, yet, for reasons all their own, the candidates last night decided to turn up the heat on each other in full view of the nation and 82 voters that were invited to ask them questions. For Obama, the reasons for that were probably rather obvious. After his disastrous performance in the first debate, the President needed to come on strong and be more forceful in his responses to his opponent. For Romney, it was a matter of continuing with the line of attack that he had started at the first debate. For both men, it just struck me that they were overdoing it and it’s unclear how that aggressiveness came across to the undecided and persuadable voters that each of them needs to win over between now and Election Day, and it didn’t help that half of their bickering ended up being about the rules and who was getting more talking time which is about the silliest thing in the world.
Overall, I’d tend to agree with the assessment that President Obama eked out a narrow victory last night for the reasons that Ross Douthat lays out:
Just by showing up energized, by hemming and hawing less often and by going after Mitt Romney more directly, President Obama ensured himself a better showing than the disaster he endured in Denver two weeks ago. But the narrow win he gained in the second presidential debate also owed something to Romney’s performance, which, though highly effective in stretches, also showcased more of his flaws, both as a debater and as a candidate.
The first flaw was stylistic. Romney is very skillful at the on-stage slash and parry, but he has weak spots, and veterans of the long Republican primary slog remember two of them particularly well. One is his tendency to argue pointlessly with the moderator and his opponents over the rules of order. The other is his habit of pressing his advantage too far, seeking a kind of alpha-male moment that can seem bullying instead of strong. (His attempt at a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry was the paradigmatic example.)
He gave in to both temptations this time around. The candidates each bickered with CNN’s Candy Crowley about turns and time allotments, but Romney went at it earlier and more often – sometimes justifiably, but never successfully. He also tried too hard to pre-empt the president’s increased aggression with aggression of his own, which doesn’t work well in a town-hall format, where the candidates are already circling one another like sharks. Invading your rival’s space can make you look hyped-up rather than presidential.
Romney’s biggest mistake last night, though, came when he mishandled a question about the consulate attack in Libya and let the President slip through on what is unquestionably his biggest foreign policy vulnerability. Partly that was because of the inappropriate decision of moderator Candy Crowley to become a fact checker in the debate, but it was also due to the fact that Romney seemed let himself become visibly rattled by the President’s response to his question. I don’t think its going to amount to a bid deal, and I’m sure that we’ll be returning to this topic at next Monday’s foreign policy debate, but it was a missed opportunity in an election where a challenger in Romney’s position really cannot afford to miss many opportunities and I’m sure the campaign is regretting it this morning.
The ultimate question, of course, is who benefits from the debate. Will Romney continue moving forward in the polls as he has consistently since after the October 3rd debate, or will Obama’s much better performance last night blunt that forward movement and possibly even start reversing the poll numbers. Judging from the “flash polls” conducted after the debate last night, it would appear that viewers gave a narrow victory to the President. A CBS poll of uncommitted debate viewers found that 37% believed Obama won, 30% believed Romney won, and 33% believed it was a tie. That same poll, however, showed that 65% of those polled believed that Romney would do a better job handling the economy. A CNN poll of registered voters gave the win to Obama 46% to 39%, but that same poll also gave the nod to Romney on specific issues including the economy, health care, taxes, the deficit, and “leadership.” Finally, a Public Policy Polling poll of Colorado voters fave the debate to Obama 48% to 44%, although it also says that the 37% said the debate made them more likely to vote for Obama, 36% said it made them more likely to vote for Romney, and 27% said it had no impact at all. What this suggests, at least according to these flash polls, is that the President scored a win here but that it was far from being a trouncing and may not have much of an impact on the race.
Nate Cohn suggests that the debate is unlikely to have much of an impact on the polls:
[I]f Romney’s gains were a product of a genuine shift in perceptions of Romney’s character, as suggested by several polls showing Romney with improved favorability ratings after the first debate, then Obama might not make many gains at all. If someone thought Romney was a good enough guy after the last debate, they probably still feel that way. Romney appeared capable of handling the presidency and an undecided voter who was previously open to supporting him would probably still be open to him tomorrow morning. Indeed, the CNN poll showed that an equal share of voters said they were more likely to support Romney and Obama after tonight’s debate.
As a result, it wouldn’t be wise to expect a big shift in the polls. After all, Romney’s September standing was deflated after months of attacks, the DNC and the 47 percent comments and Romney surged to just over 47 percent of the vote–just about the share of voters who disapprove of the president’s performance. Realistically, Romney won’t lose many of these voters from this point out and he would probably win them back by the election if he did. And Obama isn’t unlikely to return to his post-DNC standing of 49 or 49.5 percent of the popular vote, which probably reflected an unsustainably poor image of Romney and post-DNC momentum (unless Obama’s losses were almost entirely due to Democratic enthusiasm or response rates). With Obama likely to fall in a narrow band between his post-debate 47 percent and his pre-debate 49 percent, any gains would be slight and potentially difficult to distinguish from static. Of course, if Obama could get his number back near 49 percent, that would still be significant and potentially difficult for Romney to overcome.
I tend to agree. We’re at the point now where it seems unlikely that there are going to be major moves in the polls in the manner we saw after the October 3rd debate. In addition, with another debate a mere five days away it’s hard to say that this single debate is going to have much of an impact at all. By the time any reliable post-debate polling is done, we’ll be on the verge of next Monday’s final debate and then things will be reset all over again. Add into that the fact that people tend to lock in their voting decision the closer we get to Election Day, and it seems clear that what we’re likely to see in the polls in the coming week will be more akin to small movements by both candidates, with the final debate setting up the last two weeks of campaigning.