By now, everyone acknowledges the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney altered the course of this election.
On the day of the debate, Obama led Romney by 3.1 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics average of national opinion polls. Romney took his first lead against Obama six days later and has been no worse than tied for the past week; the two are in a statistical tie at the moment. More important, Romney has closed the gap or taken the lead in the crucial swing states and even put formerly Obama-leaning states Michigan, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania back in play. Today, for the first time, Romney even leads Obama in the RCP average of favorable/unfavorable polls: On average, the former Massachusetts governor is seen favorably by almost 50 percent of voters and has a net favorability rating of +5.4 percentage points — both figures are the highest of the entire presidential campaign for him — while Obama is at 51 percent and +5 percentage points. In four of the past six major polls, Romney’s net favorability is higher than Obama’s.
NBC News’ Chuck Todd has gone so far as to declare a “structural shift” in the race in Romney’s direction; it’s no longer Obama’s election to lose. So, what can Obama do in tonight’s town hall-style debate to regain the momentum?
Unfortunately for Obama supporters, I don’t think it’s going to be very easy.
Much of the commentary about the first debate focused on Obama’s listlessness and lack of aggressiveness. And that’s true as far as it goes. But Obama didn’t just lose the debate; Romney won it. After the Obama campaign spent months and tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars portraying Romney as a cold extremist, Romney gave a very different impression to many voters giving him a hard look for the first time. He was personable, confident, energetic and sounded very reasonable. Obama’s poor performance made the turnaround sharper than it might have been, but Romney earned a re-evaluation from voters on his own.
There’s little Obama can do about that. He can try to rattle or bait Romney into saying something that would put off viewers, as Joe Biden clearly tried to do with Paul Ryan in their vice presidential debate last week. But it didn’t work with Ryan, and it’s unlikely to work with Romney, a more seasoned debater who made some of those mistakes early in the primary-debate season but has become more disciplined since then. The town-hall format, in which — strangely — the rivals are not supposed to engage one another directly, will also make that task more difficult.
That format also inherently makes it harder for Obama to show the aggressiveness he didn’t display in the first debate. The point is for the candidates to engage the audience, and it takes some fine maneuvering to do that while also going after one’s opponent. Not to mention that everyone is expecting more aggressiveness from Obama in this debate precisely because it was so obviously lacking last time. Remember what I wrote last week about expectations? Well, that same principle means it’s going to be hard for Obama to meet those expectations of aggressiveness with everyone watching for it, and without going overboard a la the laughing, smirking, interrupting Biden last week.
Obama can try to go after Romney’s credibility. But Romney parried those attacks well last time and, in last week’s VP debate, got a preview of the policy areas in which the Obama team thinks Romney is vulnerable on the facts; he ought to be ready for those. If there’s a secret line of attack the Obama campaign has been sitting on, tonight is the night to bring it out.
What’s more, the past 24 hours have given Romney new ways to dent Obama’s own credibility: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s shouldering of the blame Monday for the lethally inadequate security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last month is a far cry from Obama’s 2008 statement — standing next to Clinton, no less — that he would be responsible for security matters. (Not to mention Clinton didn’t take responsibility for Obama’s inaccurate statements about why the attack happened.) There’s also the fresh bankruptcy of a manufacturer of batteries for electric cars that received a federal grant of almost $250 million in 2009 — another example of Obama’s “picking the losers,” as Romney put it in the last debate, rather than creating the 5 million green jobs he promised during, ahem, the 2008 town hall debate.
What we have, then, is a situation in which the Obama campaign tried to win the election by making it a contest of two personalities — and now faces a situation where its portrayal of Romney has been blown, and time is running out to persuade voters that caricature was correct after all.
(Note: I’ll once again be live-blogging the debate tonight, so look for a fresh post later today where you can follow the face-off with me and other readers.)
– By Kyle Wingfield