First Debate: How Romney Won and Why it Doesn’t Matter

It is fair to say that the first of this campaign’s presidential debates did not go exactly as anticipated. We were told to expect a policy-light affair, in which the candidates would focus on landing ‘zingers’, and in the end President Obama would win. This did not turn out to be the case. The candidates engaged in real policy discussion, soundbites were surprisingly few and far between, and importantly, unmistakably, Mitt Romney came out on top.

Romney has had an objectively terrible month, in which it has seemed as if every other word he has spoken has been a gaffe. So it will have come as a surprise to many to see the firm control he had over the debate last night. He spoke convincingly, dictated the pace and made no major mistakes. This was certainly not the stumbling, gaffe-prone Mitt Romney of the past few weeks.

In fact, the Romney who took part in the debate last night was quite simply not the same Romney that we have seen throughout the nomination process. During the primaries, an advisor likened Romney to an Etch-a-Sketch, that could be ‘shaken up’ and changed at any time. Last night the Etch-a-Sketch was shaken again. So it was not Candidate Romney or Businessman Romney who stood on that stage in Denver with the President, but moderate, bipartisan Massachusetts Governor Romney who wants to reach across the aisle and set aside ideology for the good of the nation. Businessman Romney may be a ‘vulture capitalist’ with no connection to the working man, Candidate Romney may be in the pocket of the Republican right, but Governor Romney can speak about the middle class, and sound believable.

While a different Romney than expected turned up to the debate, the Barack Obama on the stage seemed also to bear little relation to the smooth communicator of four years ago. The President seemed tired and even bored throughout the debate, looking down while Romney was talking and stumbling on his words when he was trying to make a point. Ultimately, he failed to make any attack stick or draw real contrasts with Romney and tie him to the more radical wing of his party, and considering the weapons in Obama’s arsenal, this is quite astonishing. Tellingly, the words ’47 percent’, ‘Bain Capital’ and ‘George Bush’ were never spoken in the debate. Romney will not have been able to believe his luck.

While Obama’s performance was lacklustre to say the least, it must be conceded that it is very difficult to win a debate against an opponent who has decided he doesn’t need to tell the truth. Romney’s falsehoods were so brazen last night that they appeared almost childlike. This was not just selective omission, but outright lies on healthcare coverage, mathematically impossible tax promises, and a complete refusal to be drawn on any specifics whatsoever. To ‘high information voters’, this was incredibly frustrating, but high information voters represent a small amount of the electorate, and an even smaller proportion of undecided voters. As Jonathan Cohn says:

The debate may not change the dynamics of the election. But if I knew nothing about the candidates and this was my first exposure to the campaign, I’d think this Romney fellow has a detailed tax plan, wants to defend the middle class and poor, and will take care of people who can’t find health insurance.

Unfortunately for Obama, last night will have been the first exposure to the campaign for more than a few of the 60 million who watched last night. And very few of them will have read the fact-checking blogs in the morning.

Romney certainly won the debate last night, but it is unlikely to have any real effect on the outcome of the election. It is very common for the challenger to an incumbent president to have a strong first debate. This is the first time that the public has had an opportunity to see them stand up next to the president, on equal footing, and take him on one-on-one. The incumbent president has spent the last four years having all his movements closely watched and analysed, providing a great deal of ammunition to be used against him, and he of course has been rather busier with the task of running the country than his opponent, who has had more opportunity to practice. Even Ronald Reagan lost the first debate to Walter Mondale in 1984; a month later he was reelected, taking 49 out of 50 states.

Romney will most likely get a bounce in the polls from his debate performance, but as Al Gore could tell you, it is not the popular vote that matters in presidential elections but the electoral college, and it is here that Romney is trailing badly. Nate Silver’s latest projection shows Obama winning 319 electoral votes to Romney’s 218, and while other forecasts vary, they all show Obama winning comfortably. As James Downie wrote:

Forecasters commonly predict that Obama already has a big lead of safe and leaning states. If we assume Romney will improve in the polls, there would be around nine “swing states”: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. There’s one problem here for Romney: He is trailing, and has been consistently trailing, in all but two.

If he were to win the election, two would not be anywhere near enough. Romney may need to win as many as seven of those nine states to stand a chance. While this is not impossible, it is important to note that there is reportedly a particularly low number of undecided voters in this election. This means that not only would Romney have to sweep the swing states, but he would have to do it by converting Democrats, and as Jamelle Bouie concluded in his analysis of the debate, ‘Romney gave a great performance, but there was nothing in his rhetoric that would convince an Obama voter to switch sides

In the days leading up to the debate, New Jersey governor Chris Christie predicted that the race would be ‘turned upside down come Thursday morning’, along the lines of the famous first presidential debate of 1960, in which John F. Kennedy’s calm, assured performance helped him overtake Richard Nixon in the polls, and ultimately win the election. It seems more likely that something closer to 2004 will actually turn out to be the case, in which John Kerry comprehensively won the first debate against George W. Bush, and received his boost in the polls, but then lost come November. Kerry has recently been helping President Obama prepare for the debates by playing the role of Mitt Romney in his practice sessions. It appears ever more likely that when it comes to the actual election, Romney will return the compliment, playing the role of John Kerry, and losing to the incumbent.

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About ourfriendsinthewest

A British take on American politics.

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