Let the race to over-analyze the debate begin! What’s that? Oh, it seems I’m a bit late — instant analysis and spin were already in full force within seconds of the debate’s completion. Instead, I’ll have to analyze the over-analysis of the debate that blankets today’s news coverage.
My own conclusion: Overall, the immediate analysis is obsessed with expertly sizing up who won the debate, but ignoring which candidate benefited the most. Those are not the same things. They are expertly inspecting trees when they should be viewing the entire forest. After all, it’s not about who wins a debate; it’s about who wins the election. And this debate — regardless of who “won” — actually helps Mitt Romney’s election chances a lot more than it helps President Obama’s.
No, you wouldn’t know that from the news coverage. The headlines are all about Obama’s much-improved showing over his anemic, mail-it-in performance in the first debate. Not surprisingly, his supporters, who were a bit panicky following Obama’s abysmal first debate, are elated. Here’s a sampling:
From the left-leaning Huffington Post, the excited headlines include the all-caps “BARACK IS BACK” and “Presidential Debate Instant Polls Show Narrow Win For Obama”; from The New Republic: “Obama’s Very Good Night”; from Andrew Sullivan: “I Am Bloody Elated”; from Mark Halperin: “I Don’t Think Anyone Could Say Romney Won”; from the American Prospect: “Game, Set, Obama;” from the Washington Post: “President Obama Turns it around.”
You get the picture.
The right-leaning publications were calling it pretty much a draw. From the Weekly Standard: “Not a Game-Changer” and “Obama Scores Points, But Romney Remains Solid”; National Review writers alternately called it “A Tie,” “A Draw,” and “Obama, on Points.”
But, as I said, all this scoring of the debate misses the more fundamental issue about how this affects the election. From that standpoint, Romney had a very good night.
How could Romney have been arguably outperformed, yet still come away the winner? Because unlike the professional pundits expertly dissecting each debate segment, most people whose vote might be swayed by this debate weren’t looking at who won; they were looking at whether Mitt Romney is a plausible candidate, and whether they’d be comfortable voting for him.
President Obama is a known quantity. For five years, he has been all over the media — not just news shows, but on Oprah and the View, on Letterman and Leno and Kimmel and Jon Stewart; not just speaking, but picking his NCAA brackets and partying with Hollywood’s A-list. For the past four years, America has lived under his policies, which he has explained ad nauseum: on Obamacare alone, the president delivered 54 speeches, nine televised town hall meetings, and 13 radio addresses prior to its passage. The marginal value of a good debate performance for him is limited.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is still trying to get himself known — and to get himself known differently from the caricature painted by the Obama campaign’s advertising. That’s why the first debate had such remarkably high television viewership: voters wanted a good, long look at him.
I suspect that the huge jump in the polls Romney enjoyed after the first debate was a function of his excellent performance, mostly independent of how Obama performed. It’s quite plausible that people finally developed opinions of Romney’s capabilities based on 90 minutes of unfiltered exposure. It is less plausible that Obama’s numbers tanked merely because of one bad night on the heels of five years of relentless overexposure.
Thus, most Obama-supporting pundits took away the wrong lesson from that debate. They saw a poor performance by their man followed by a swing in the polls, and mistakenly attributed correlation to causation. The real takeaway from that first debate was that, given the chance to show who he is to large numbers of Americans without media filters, Mitt Romney impressed. And seemed plausibly presidential.
In the second debate, Romney continued to make a presidential impression. The most interesting post-debate analysis was not from the usual spinmeisters, but came from focus groups of undecided voters.
On MSNBC, the focus group of undecided Ohio voters leaned toward Romney after the debate — including a couple who voted for Obama in 2008. Even after being harangued directly by Chris Matthews, they stuck to their guns.
On Fox, pollster Frank Luntz spoke to a larger focus group, made up of undecided Nevada voters, most of whom had voted for Obama in 2008. Their assessment of Romney was good news for him, as he was described by group members as “presidential,” “steady,” articulate,” “knowledgeable,” “a dynamo,” “realistic” and “a winner.”
These former Obama voters complained that “Obama didn’t explain anything” about his plans or his record, and that “middle income Americans won’t benefit one nickel” even if Obama doubles the taxes on Romney’s income. About two thirds of the group now leans toward Romney, and thought he won the debate. There was little pro-Obama opinion expressed.
But perhaps the most telling comment came from one former Obama voter who said, “I’m not undecided between Romney and Obama; I’m undecided between Romney and not voting.” She came away from this debate “extremely favorably impressed” by Romney. She is likely not alone.
Keep in mind, these weren’t professional analysts who discuss these debates in the context of presidential election history; these were just voters. They didn’t seem to care if Obama won on points; they were watching Romney. And they mostly seemed favorably impressed enough to vote for him.
Barack Obama only won 53% of the vote in 2008. He now has a record, and voters have been living it. If he’s not holding on to the vast majority of those who voted for him the first time, he’s in big trouble — regardless of whether he wins or loses any single debate on points.