Last Night by the Numbers

by Charles C. W. Cooke

Well, there’s winning and then there’s winning. To my eyes, last night’s debate was pretty much a tie — and if anyone won, it was Obama by a whisker. I thought CNN’s online verdict was pretty fair, if anodyne:

President Obama fought back and Republican challenger Mitt Romney stood his ground.

Insofar as these things are worth anything, the CNN Instapoll had Obama as the victor, by 46–39. CBS agreed, handing the debate to the president by 37–30. 

But the headline numbers do not tell the whole story. First off, I wonder how closely Obama’s narrow victory is related to 73 percent of respondents considering that he did “better than expected.” The president was greatly improved from the first debate, and that should be noted; but one doesn’t win elections by securing “most improved” trophies, and it cannot be a good thing for a sitting president to be subject to such low expectations a few weeks before Election Day. If Obama has — had, perhaps — one perceived strength it is that he is a solid performer, and to be told that people didn’t expect much of you must be crushing.

Moreover, the breakdown of CNN’s poll should give heart to the Romney campaign, especially in an election that has been dominated by concern about matters economic and matters domestic. By a margin of 58–40, respondents considered that Romney was better on the economy; 51–44 favored him on taxes; 49–46 on health care; and a significant 59–36 gave him the edge on the deficit. When asked who they would likely be voting for, the poll was tied 25–25. Obama edged foreign policy by a point, but whatever small advantage Obama has on the backseat issue of foreign policy is in serious danger of being wiped out by the Libya scandal. And although Romney flubbed his attack on this issue, he has 90 minutes next Monday to make up that ground. I cannot see him wasting it.

Immediately after the debate, Fox broadcast a Luntz group from Las Vegas. The members, in the words of its moderator, ”really swung” for Romney. How much? “As significant as in Denver ten days ago.” This, of course, could be an outlier, and Jonah discusses that here. But a similar thing happened on MSNBC. “How many of you thought Obama won?” asked the host. One hand went up. Six of the eight said they were leaning toward Romney.

It is tempting to consider the headline numbers and the internal details as being mutually exclusive, but they are not necessarily so. Ace of Spades made an interesting point last night:

Americans have gotten pretty sophisticated about judging performance, especially after 10 years of American Idol.

We shouldn’t assume that when people answer the question “Who won the debate?” they confuse that question with “Who did you find more persuasive?”

They might actually be offering a sophisticated analysis: “I think this guy won on debate performance points.”

But then ask them “Who actually persuaded you?,” and they might answer a completely different way.

It certainly appears that’s what happened here tonight.

Whatever explains it, the most devastating answer of the night came in response to the question of whether or not the candidates had a clear plan for the future: 38 percent of respondents said that Obama did, and 61 percent that he did not. Romney’s numbers were tied 49–50. This is the surprise story of the day, and one that has been picked up since last night by Mark Halperin, Joe Scarborough, Tom Friedman, and others. As far as I can see, Obama’s main plan for the next four years is to be president in them, and that may well not be enough to win reelection, however well he seems to have recovered from his Denver debacle.

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