I updated a recent post by mentioning Brit Hume and how his characterization of Obama's debate performance was similar to mine: yes, the President was weak, but he was pretty much the fellow we have been watching and listening to for four years. He is a lot of fun when reading a teleprompter to a jazzed up crowd, but not so much when he has to think on his feet.
I think that Romney's oratorical strength and Obama's weakness were both exaggerated by the Left and the Right. See Commentary's John Podhoretz for confirmation. If I am right, the question is why. Three polls now register the effect of the debate. The two candidates are tied in Rasmussen and Gallup's three-day tracking poll. Gallup is tracking registered voters, which means it probably confirms the most exciting poll for Romney supporters. The Pew poll has Romney ahead by four points. There seems to be similar movement in swing-state polls, though we will have to wait for that. The bottom line is that Romney got a significant bump from the debate.
The Pew poll shows what nearly everyone acknowledges: Romney won the debate by a wide margin (72-14%). Gallup has it 72-20%.
That 52-point gap was the largest the polling outfit has ever seen, topping even Bill Clinton's 42-point margin over George H. W. Bush in 1992.
So why do I think that Romney's debate victory has been oversold? In large part because the President's strength at this point in the campaign has been greatly exaggerated by the press and that exaggeration has been internalized by a lot of Republicans.
Consider the Battleground poll. Romney trails the President by a statistically insignificant point. However, almost all of the calls on which that poll is based were made before the debate. Romney may well have pulled even with his opponent in the week leading up to Denver. In fact, that poll is very good news for the Governor.
Only 73 percent who support Obama say they are "extremely likely" to vote, compared to 86 percent who back Romney. Likewise, 84 percent of Republicans say they are extremely likely to vote, compared to 76 percent of Democrats.
Among those extremely likely to vote, Romney actually leads Obama 52 percent to 46 percent. That's up from a 2-point lead last week. Obama led 50 percent to 47 percent among this group three weeks ago…
Romney now leads among independents by 16 points, 51 percent to 35 percent. This is up from 4 points last week. But he still trails in the overall head-to-head numbers because of near monolithic support for Obama among minority Democrats.
The President carried a significant lead over Romney through pretty much all of September. On the basis of those horse race numbers, you'd have had to bet that he was going to be reelected. However, as I and others have been pointing out, the President was at 50% or below in almost all of those polls. Obama's numbers haven't changed but Romney began gaining ground at the end of September. He was in fact closing on Obama before last Wednesday.
Dispirited Republicans and hopeful Democrats both accepted a narrative that exaggerated Romney's disadvantage going into the debate. When the two appeared together on the Denver stage, the rubber band snapped. Republicans realized they had a not half bad candidate who looked pretty good opposite Barack Obama. Independents leaning toward Romney turned on the debate looking for a reason to be comfortable with their lean and Romney gave it to them. What explains the exaggerated criticism of Obama's performance by Democrats?
The debate was the first good look at Mitt Romney for a lot of Americans. Oddly enough, I think the same thing was true of Barack Obama. No American politician has ever been more carefully or more persistently packaged than this man. He is, after all, the fellow who won the Nobel Peace Prize without doing even the smallest thing for the cause of peace. A lot of Democrats in Congress, in the Press, and at large, have had good reason to wonder what the President has been doing while in office. Maybe last Wednesday was the moment that they all began to wonder about that at the same time.
Much of the friendly fire directed toward Mr. Obama came in this form: he had lots of opportunities to nail Romney and failed to exploit them. Okay. But the things they wish he had done on stage were the same things he has been relentlessly doing from podiums around the country and in millions of dollars of TV time for months. You'd think it would have worked by now. These are the same people who complained that the President needed to go out and defend ObamaCare at a time when he was doing just that (in front of a teleprompter) a dozen times a week. If you keep defending a failing messenger, what does that say about the message? Maybe last Wednesday was the moment that Democrats realized that they might soon have to choose whether to throw the messenger or the message overboard.
If you don't believe me, ask Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Writing in the New Republic, Lemann closes with this:
After the election, the chance that Obama will feel that he has finally been set free to let the world see who he really is and what he really believes is nil. But it's also a safe bet that his core convictions are not those of the old Democratic Leadership Council. Romney palpably wishes to restore American hegemony in the world; Obama (drone attacks and dead Osama bin Laden or not) does not. Romney believes in business as the core institution in society in a way that Obama does not. We will surely find out something more about Obama's convictions and his priorities in the six months after Election Day—not before. As to what that will be, it's hard to think of any politician running for reelection about whom the question is more difficult to answer.
In other words, you will have to reelect him to find out what's in him. That is about as blistering an indictment of an incumbent as ever I have seen. After four years of Obama in the Oval Office, the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism still doesn't know what Obama believes. I cannot agree with Lemann. We won't learn anything at all about Obama six months from now that we don't already know, whether he is returned or not. I am sure that that paragraph is one more expression of anxieties that are surfacing in the Democratic pool just now.
I don't know how genuine Romney's surge is or whether it will last. I do think we have been laboring under the burden of distorted narratives, both before and after the debates.