In the aftermath of the first debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, many liberals are feeling demoralized, and conservatives are high fiveing, which is not surprising given the unanimous verdict from the political media that Romney won the debate.
The former Massachusetts governor did succeed in elevating himself to the president’s level (which is what happens when a challenger stands onstage with a sitting president and doesn’t drool or stammer or fall off the stage.)
More importantly, Romney managed to shift the media narrative in his favor, which will likely help him in the polls in the short term, which, by the way, is what is expected: as Nate Silver points out, statistically challengers typically win the first debate, and benefit more from it in the polls than do incumbents.
But as uninspiring a night as it was for Obama supporters, was Wednesday night’s debate a “game changer,” or as some pundits have branded it, the real start of the 2012 election? Probably not, and there are several reasons why:
No knockout moment
Obama supporters are seething that he played rope-a-dope all evening without even trying for a knock-out, but in a debate that often got mired in the weeds of policy, Romney didn’t exactly knock Obama out, either. Romney did himself some good in countering his image as a cartoon cutout of a greedy capitalist, but his performance was probably most satisfying to people already committed to voting for him. And the debate was so languid, so poorly moderated — the candidates were allowed to ramble on into the weeds of policy most people don’t know much about (Dodd-Frank, anyone…?) — and frankly, so dull, it’s hard to imagine many people sat through it all, unless they were either partisans for one side, members of the media, or part of a focus group.
Romney’s “pre-existing condition”
As Noam Scheiber points out in this excellent analysis in the New Republic, for all his failure to take advantage of it Wednesday night, President Obama’s campaign has spent the last six months successfully defining Mitt Romney, and that, structurally, matters more across the breadth of a campaign. Remember that a third of the country is already voting, and more than 9 in 10 voters are settled in and deeply committed to their candidate.
Undecided means “undecided”
Despite polls showing uncommitted voters overwhelmingly thought Romney won the debate, the fact remains that undecided voters are undecided because they are slow to commit. If after a year of litigating Romney and Obama’s records hasn’t helped them figure out who they’re voting for, it’s hard to imagine those playing the most “hard to get” won’t wait for “more details,” or even for all four debates to unfold before finally making up their minds.
Debates matter … but only sometimes
The history of presidential elections is very consistent: a single debate rarely changes the fundamental trajectory of a campaign, absent a single, defining “moment.” John Kerry arguably won all three of his debates against then-president George W. Bush, but he still lost the election. And the debates that stand the test of time or memory are those that produce a memorable line or gaffe (Ronald Reagan asking “are you better off than you were four years ago,” Michael Dukakis flubbing a question about how he would respond to the rape of his daughter, George Herbert Walker Bush looking at his watch during a town hall style debate with Bill Clinton, or Richard Nixon sweating through the first televised U.S. presidential debate against a younger, more vital John F. Kennedy…) Last night’s debate produced no such moment or line. (It’s telling that the most memorable takeaway from the debate were the shout-outs to Big Bird.) It was the totality of the debate that favored Romney. That’s not good news for Obama, but it’s not the end of the election, either.