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Tuesday, October 23, 2012  

The End of Debate Season

Perhaps it's just because I follow political news far, far too closely, but while I had to steel myself to turn on each debate, I found each of them pretty compelling as dramatic events. I've been watching these things since the Dukakis rape blunder and "You're no Jack Kennedy," and I thought this round featured some consistently interesting, if not actually edifying, tilts. Obama came out weak and disorganized the first time through while Romney was sharp, disciplined, and very surprisingly moderate; Biden was imperious and derisive next to a fluent and effective, if ultimately outgunned, Ryan; Romney was red-faced and testy while Obama was much more forceful in the second presidential debate; and Obama probably hit his stride this last time around, but Romney suddenly refused to fight.

With the exception of the second presidential debate, I don't think anyone would have predicted these approaches in advance. Romney's curiously passive performance last night has raised some interesting interpretations. I'm inclined to think that Romney knew his attempts to sound more aggressively interventionist than Obama would not work in a debate format and would not be popular, especially among the kinds of uncommitted voters one imagines trying to reach. Or it's been argued that Romney was playing defense because he knows he isn't as comfortable with those issues as Obama is, or that he was simply trying to clear a "threshold," or even that he was playing "prevent defense" from a position of relative strength at this point in the campaign.

Knowing that Romney is a smart person who would not handle the debate as he did without some purpose, I'm genuinely intrigued by the possibilities his style last night represented. I don't think there's much doubt that he "lost" the debate "on points," that he came off as a little sweaty and uncomfortable, and that he couldn't really compete with the president in that elusive quality of presidentialness. But if, as seems likely, none of these things were goals of Romney going in, what story did the debate really tell?

Apart from the embarrassingly constricted definition of "foreign policy" that animates our political debates, I wonder what the campaigns are telling themselves. It's been said in more than once place that  Obama handled the debate like he thought he was losing, and Romney like he thought he was winning, but that could just be projection. As an over-consumer of poll averages, I see Obama ahead, albeit narrowly, in two of them, after slipping behind earlier in the month. Nate Silver projects a 70% chance that Obama wins reelection, with a median EV projection of 290.8 and popular vote total of 50.1% to Romney's 48.8%.

On the other hand, there are some outliers in the polling--Gallup most notably, which has showed Romney up by five or more points for a while now. Is Romney's campaign seeing internal numbers that look like Gallup's rather than like the others? Or are they confident because Obama has settled into a lower level--around 47%--than an incumbent should want to hold at this point in a race? On the other hand, state-level polls show a relatively strong Obama in the electoral college, such that a cautious approach by Romney seems unwarranted right now. He's also doing well in early voting, which bids fair to put a state like Nevada out of reach before election day and perhaps to give the Democrats a bit of an edge beforehand in Iowa.

Anyway, this is just to say that I'm not seeing grounds for complacency anywhere here. At this point there are more indicators that Romney could break out into a clear victory than that Obama could, but this looks an awful lot like a tied-up race in which every advantage, however small and momentary, can make a difference.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:28 AM
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