Is there a mystery about who won the second presidential debate? Some people certainly think so. They remain puzzled because snap polls showed that Obama had won narrowly yet he has not had the benefit of a “bounce” since then.
The conventional explanation of this is that Obama’s victory did enough to stop his earlier collapse (“stop the bleeding”) but not enough to regain lost ground or to halt Romney’s advance in the polls.
Another way of making this point is to claim that the president cheered up his own side but did not impress uncommitted voters. Provided we include the qualification that the president’s own side includes the media — which promptly went out and assigned him the victory — this is at least not wrong.
As cooler critics noted from the first, however, the same polls that accorded Obama an overall victory in the debate also showed that Romney enjoyed much larger leads on more specific questions about who was more trusted on taxes, the budget, the economy, and the way ahead in general. Those judgments were also a verdict on the debate, however, since Romney gave confident, authoritative, and clear answers on these topics, sometimes repeating them several times in the 90 minutes.
That was why many people saw the debate as a tie or near-tie with victory going only marginally to one side or the other. And if the national and regional polls since last week are the criterion, it was Romney who enjoyed the narrow victory.
There is, however, a third way of looking at the debate. It was rather like a courtroom drama — a Perry Mason show, maybe. There’s a rhythm we’re used to in such shows: The prosecution makes its case and sweeps all before it; the defense fumbles its arguments and looks defeated; then, in a surprise denouement, the defense produces a new piece of evidence and, by common consent, wins the day.
Something like that happened in the debate last week. Romney dominated the first half of the debate, maybe the first hour, with a strong critique of the president and an equally strong presentation of his own economic argument. He clearly won the clash on licenses to prospect for oil and gas. Then, he mishandled a few questions — first, on immigration (where he was nervous and failed to link the question to jobs for low-paid Americans), second and most importantly on Benghazi. And the moderator then confirmed the impression of his weakening by her intervention asserting (certainly misleadingly, arguably falsely) that the president had condemned the Benghazi assault as a terrorist attack on Day One. That left only a short time to the finishing post. And since much of that was occupied by final statements, there was little or no chance for Romney to break back.
Result: an impression on the part of viewers that Romney had been bested in the final moments after a strong performance earlier. This Perry Mason scenario meant that the viewers gave Obama the win by a narrow margin (37 percent to the president, 33 percent for a tie, and 30 percent for Romney). But as they made a fresh pot of coffee or walked home from the bar, the content of Romney’s answers was what they remembered and what they continued to recall the next day.
And that’s why Romney was the winner in the final analysis.
So the way to judge tonight is how well and how often each candidate presents his case, both positively and negatively, rather than who wins the occasional bout of verbal fisticuffs. A short way of thinking about it is, as Rich Lowry and Bill Kristol both agree, to ask: Which candidate is the more presidential?
Here Romney has the advantage if only because Obama has already tested that proposition to destruction.