Before the first presidential debate, it was easy to say that the face-offs usually don’t matter that much. One had to go back to 1976, 1980, and 1984 to find examples of a debate having a material effect on a presidential election. But that first debate earlier this month—specifically, Mitt Romney’s strong performance and President Obama’s weak one—had an impact that we are still seeing, even after the incumbent “won” the next two debates, if the instant polls are to be believed.
It’s worth noting that many political aficionados look at debates in a way that is inherently flawed. They grade the candidates’ performances, both in real terms and relative to expectations, the same way one might judge a high school debate, or score a boxing match or diving competition. The better way to judge a debate is to ask at its end, and again a few days later, “Did anything that happened change how people view one or both candidates?” By that standard, Romney’s performance in that first debate on Oct. 3, as well as his subsequent “losses,” have shifted the way a fairly significant number of swing voters view him, to the point that many who weren’t really considering voting for him are now contemplating doing just that.
The situation isn’t the same as it was in 1980, when undecided voters moved en masse to Ronald Reagan after his Oct. 31 debate with Jimmy Carter. But the undecideds are listening and considering. This became abundantly clear in watching a video live stream of a focus group with swing voters that Democratic pollster Peter Hart conducted in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 10, under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. The swing voters expressed shock and dismay at Obama’s underwhelming performance and surprise that Romney seemed pretty impressive. They discovered that he didn’t foam at the mouth and seemed to be making some reasonable and coherent arguments. In the words of Terri, one participant, “I am looking at [Romney] with new eyes.”
Even in the two subsequent debates, Romney came across as someone whom voters disappointed in Obama’s performance as president (after all, if they approved of Obama’s record they would not be in a focus group of undecided voters) would see as worthy of consideration.
A strong performance in that first debate would have probably closed the sale for Obama. Instead, his lackluster showing shifted a bunch of voters who had seemed to be drifting gradually in his direction back into neutral, with some reversing course and moving into Romney’s column.
One of the more interesting findings in the just-released NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Hart and Republican pollster Bill McInturff was the response when likely voters were asked, “Regardless of who you are voting for, when it comes to [either Mitt Romney’s and Paul Ryan’s or Barack Obama’s and Joe Biden’s] campaign, would you say that they have a message and you know what they would do if elected, or would you say that they do not have a plan and you do not know what they would do if elected.” In the Sept. 26-30 NBC/WSJ poll, conducted just before the debate, 65 percent said that Obama and Biden had a plan, 13 percentage points more than the 52 percent who said that Romney and Ryan had a plan. In the Oct. 17-20 poll, Obama/Biden had dropped 4 points to 61 percent, and Romney/Ryan had risen 5 points to 57 percent, just a 4-point gap. Among independents, Obama/Biden dropped 11 percentage points, from 61 percent to 50 percent, while Romney/Ryan went up 8 points, from 47 percent to 55 percent. Romney effectively moved from minus 14 percentage points in September to plus 5 points in the new poll.
The NBC/WSJ poll also asked, “Now, thinking specifically about the economy, who do you think is better prepared to create jobs and improve the economy over the next four years,” Romney or Obama? In late September, the two were pretty much tied. Romney was up by 1 point, 43 percent to 42 percent. In the new poll, Romney had a 4-point edge. That isn’t much movement overall, but look at independents: Romney went from 3 points behind Obama, 35 percent to 38 percent, to 23 points ahead of Obama, 48 percent to 25 percent.
This race is still a challenge for Romney. Although tied nationally in this new NBC/WSJ and most other polling, he still carries a great deal of scar tissue in some of the swing states—most notably, Ohio and Wisconsin, but also Colorado and Iowa. Romney is clearly better situated to win the popular vote than the electoral vote; Obama is much closer than Romney to the magic 270 number in the Electoral College.
But this is a horse race, a very close one that can still go either way, and that was not the case before the first debate. The debates—and I would say all three of them—hit a reset button for Romney and put him back into this contest.
This column appeared in print as "Romney’s Revival."
This article appears in the October 27, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.