By now, we’ve watched the first Presidential Debate on October 3; we’ve read and watched the post-game analysis; we’ve digested what we saw and how it was analyzed. It was universally hailed by the punditocracy, both on the right and the left, as a significant victory for Romney.
For most of us on the Right, the victory was decisive, and sweet. But what does it mean going forward?
There were a few articles that came out immediately after the debate that caught my eye. These articles might give us a glimpse into what to expect.
First and foremost, the Left and President Obama were caught completely flat footed and totally off guard. Obama and his supporters all seemed completely incapable of conceiving that he could be so thoroughly trounced. And frankly, many of us on the Right weren’t convinced that Romney had it in him.
Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast reacted as if he had heard the news that he only had six months to live:
10.31 pm. Look: you know how much I love the guy, and you know how much of a high information viewer I am, and I can see the logic of some of Obama’s meandering, weak, professorial arguments. But this was a disaster for the president for the key people he needs to reach, and his effete, wonkish lectures may have jolted a lot of independents into giving Romney a second look.
Obama looked tired, even bored; he kept looking down; he had no crisp statements of passion or argument; he wasn’t there. He was entirely defensive, which may have been the strategy. But it was the wrong strategy. At the wrong moment.
The person with authority on that stage was Romney – offered it by one of the lamest moderators ever, and seized with relish. This was Romney the salesman. And my gut tells me he sold a few voters on a change tonight. It’s beyond depressing. But it’s true.
There are two more debates left. I have experienced many times the feeling that Obama just isn’t in it, that he’s on the ropes and not fighting back, and then he pulls it out. He got a little better over time tonight. But he pulled every punch. Maybe the next two will undo some of the damage. But I have to say I think it was extensive.
From my vantage point, he might be right about Obama not having much fight in him. I can’t imagine how disappointing that must be to Obama supporters (oh wait, I forgot about John McCain’s debate performances … never mind).
For Romney’s part, he almost looked like a kid in a candy store. Some observers remarked that he looked nervous, but it was actually excitement – he couldn’t WAIT to get his points out, because he knew he was about to land another devastating body blow. As my friend pointed out, “Mitt is thinking to himself right now, ‘This is going exactly like practice!'”
Jeff Greenfield was even more devastating in his analysis over at yahoo.com:
Yes, it was as bad as it seemed.
No, it wasn’t Jim Lehrer’s fault for letting Romney expound; Obama got more time (four minutes more) than Romney. Besides, it’s not the moderator’s job to call a debater out on questionable assertions. It’s the opponent’s job.
Yes, it wasn’t the best atmospherics for Obama to look down, purse his lips, appear distracted, while Romney was attentive, engaged, relaxed. But this was much more than atmospherics. This was about one candidate who came with a frame for the evening, and who was prepared to engage on every question; and another who, perhaps because of his documented faith in his own abilities, felt he could wing it with snatches of familiar verbiage.
Most surprising, the whole evening felt as if Obama thought he was back in 2008, needing only to demonstrate a sense of cool, calm collectedness to persuade the voters that they could do what they desperately wanted to do: change course.
Later, he goes on to point out just how much this may have damaged Obama’s chances at reelection:
What remains is one key question that the next 48 to 72 hours will answer: Did this debate change the minds of significant numbers of voters? Assuming that the flash polls are right—that most viewers thought Romney won the debate—did they regard that as a loss for “their” team, or did it persuade some of them to change their minds about whom they are supporting,
One of the enduring myths of campaign analysis is that you can actually count the number of “undecided” voters by asking voters if they are undecided or not. Sometimes, significant numbers of voters actually change their minds. That’s how Reagan turned a small lead into a landslide in 1980. It’s how Gore won the popular vote in 2000, and how Kerry got back into the race in 2004.
If this debate—as one-sided as any I have ever seen—does not change the landscape, if Obama retains a small but measurable lead, it means that the election is more or less over (barring some overwhelmingly consequential event), that voters have decided they are going to stick with the President. That is thin gruel on which the Obama campaign must dine for the next few days; but after this debacle, it’s the only sustenance on the menu.
Greenfield really hits on something here, something that we often lose in our 24 hour, ADHD, poll- and focus group-driven news buffet. Undecideds are undecided for a reason – because they haven’t made up their minds yet. Those who take more time to make up their minds are more prone to changing it when conditions change. When we see polls – even the ones that aren’t so badly skewed leftward as to be comically inept – that make declaratory statements, it’s very easy to forget that they are not permanent. Polls only give you a snapshot of an instant, while voter attitudes are dynamic and fluid – especially those in the center. “Sometimes, significant numbers of voters actually change their minds.” Especially those who are not firmly in one camp or the other.
Frank Luntz discovered this quite clearly in his focus group on Wednesday night (h/t Twitchy.com):
Tonight, pollster Frank Luntz assembled a focus group consisting of undecided Colorado voters. By the end of tonight’s debate, the group had moved dramatically toward GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
At least half a dozen focus group members who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 now say they will vote for Romney. Virtually everyone in the group said that Romney won the debate and exceeded their expectations.
Luntz, who has been in the polling business for at least two decades, says he has never seen such a dramatic shift in opinion as a result of a debate.
There is little question that Romney scored a decisive victory in Wednesday night’s battle. He did not deliver a knockout blow, but he has decidedly placed the incumbent on defense. Romney was able to present himself as better informed and more presidential. It’s hard to imagine that undecided voters, however subconsciously, wouldn’t react favorably to the candidate who presented a much stronger, more forceful and better organized case while reducing his opponent to a few badly articulated sound bites. Even those undecided voters who aren’t sure what exactly they do believe will be attracted to Romney’s show of strength and leadership.
Make no mistake – Obama knows he has to be better in the next two debates. He will have to come out on offense and try to fight his way out of the corner. He will be dangerous. But it may be too late. The voters of America have now seen him exposed as maybe not being quite the infallible man that many believed he was. The war rages on, but Wednesday night’s battle may have swung the momentum in Romney’s favor for good.