When the debate commission announced that this year’s town-hall debate—in which questioners would be selected from among undecided voters in the surrounding region—would be held in Long Island, N.Y., rather than in a swing state, it raised a few eyebrows. Undecided voters in Nassau County generally aren’t like undecided voters in Ohio or Virginia. They tend to be people who start from a liberal foundation but may be a little too populist to be comfortably Democratic voters these days, and so in some respects a kind of mirror image of what we normally think of as swing voters. The questions in Tuesday night’s town-hall debate certainly reflected that character. These were, on the whole, questions from disappointed Democrats. That didn’t necessarily advantage one candidate over the other: It meant some of the subjects taken up in the debate heavily favored Obama but it also meant that the tone of the questioners was almost uniformly disappointed with Obama, which is probably the most dangerous of all attitudes for the incumbent president.
These are both significant differences from the first Obama-Romney debate. I think the importance of the subject matter in that first debate has not been sufficiently remarked upon. If the Republican National Committee were to design a presidential debate this year, they would have it focused on the economy, jobs, health care, taxes, spending, and the role of government, which is basically what the first debate was about. It so happens that these are the issues that most concern voters in polls this year, so it’s not hard to see why Jim Lehrer chose them for the domestic-policy debate, but they are issues that naturally favor Mitt Romney, and although it’s certainly true that Obama’s low-energy performance and Romney’s very polished and forceful presentation were key to the outcome of that debate, the fact that the debate was basically fought on Romney’s territory surely contributed to both.
At the same time, however, that first debate—as any debate run by a member of American journalism’s upper class would be, and as the VP debate therefore also was—was basically run in a tone of deep skepticism about the plausibility and legitimacy of all non-liberal positions and views. It was a debate in which Mitt Romney had a lot to prove, and he basically proved it. That’s the situation of right-leaning office seekers in our politics most of the time.
In this second debate, both dynamics were reversed. Many of the questions were about the sorts of things liberals would want debates to be about. Given a chance to address the presidential candidates, would many swing voters in the battleground states in this election ask about pay equity (and ground their question in false liberal talking points on the subject)? Are they concerned about gun control? Do they think about immigration the way the debate questioner on that subject did? No. Yet at the same time many of the questioners approached Obama with an underlying sense of disappointment, and seemed to look at Romney with an eye to whether he might be a less disappointing president.
I suspect this combination made this debate less interesting to undecided voters in undecided states, but that on the whole it helped Romney a bit more than Obama. Disappointment with the incumbent combined with a sense that the challenger is a reasonably plausible president is how you unseat a president, and tonight’s debate enabled Romney to advance both elements a bit even though Obama was much stronger than he was in Denver two weeks ago.
The president proved that he was not catatonic, and that he actually wanted to be reelected, which is something given where he was after the first debate. But I suspect that this debate as a whole left many undecided voters with a sense that they are not alone in being disappointed with Obama, and that Romney is offering something for the future while Obama is offering nothing new. That latter point was perhaps more powerfully evident than ever tonight: Romney was focused on jobs and the economy and kept pressing the idea that he has an agenda. Obama had essentially nothing to say about the future at all, and yet also wanted to avoid the recent past, and so could only steer the conversation to his opponent’s character.
Obama did land some punches. His focus this entire campaign year has been less on combating disappointment with himself than on undermining Romney’s plausibility, and he clearly came prepared to push that agenda after suffering an immense setback on this front in the first debate. He attacked Romney as a cold-hearted plutocrat and calculating flip-flopper, and was able to regain his balance a little. But Romney for the most part responded ably, and more importantly he attacked Obama’s record very effectively and argued for his own agenda reasonably well (though not nearly as well as in the first debate). The damage done to the core of the Obama campaign’s message (“Mitt Romney can’t be president”) in the last debate was not nearly undone in this debate, and there was almost no way it could have been.
I suspect the net result of all of that is that Romney helped himself a little with swing voters, but that the basic dynamics of the race did not much change. Effectively a tie, or perhaps a slight edge to the challenger. Given the state of the race, the Romney team would be right to be fairly happy about that.
There is, however, one thing they should surely be worried about: Romney was neither effective nor sure-footed on foreign policy in this debate, and that’s the subject of the next one (not to mention a foremost responsibility of the president). There is a little time to hone and improve on that front (and they might start by looking at what Paul Ryan had to say last week, and how he said it), but there does appear to be a need for some work before next week’s final debate.