Monday, October 22, 2012

The Last Debate

It sounds so final.

I am of two minds about tonight's debate. I can make a plausible argument as to why tonight is more of an opportunity for Romney or Obama.

Why Romney is going to gain ground after tonight's debate: ABC/WP has a poll out this afternoon suggesting Romney is just about as trusted on the issue of terrorism as the President. Romney has made gains on just about every characteristic across the board in recent weeks. Unlike most, I do not think Obama's poor performance was the cause of the change in the race after the first debate. Rather, I think it was that Romney looked credible. And, given the bad electoral environment for the President (right/track, wrong/track, economy, etc.), some voters who didn't support the President but couldn't get behind Romney before ... did. So what does this mean for tonight? Foreign policy is Romney's big weakness. If he appears credible and looks like a President, he can gather more support by dealing with a key weakness.

Why that's wrong: There's nobody left for Romney to win over. There's almost no undecideds left and Romney's base is at its enthusiasm peak. I don't see it getting better for him. So, even if Romney performs really well tonight and even if he's judged to have "won" the debate (whatever the heck that means), there's no potential for a bounce there.

Why Obama is going to gain ground after tonight's debate: Because he's the President. I know this sounds a bit trite but it has real meaning. He ended the war in Iraq, he's drawing Afghanistan to a close, and he got bin Laden. These are all things voters strongly approve of. He has a record to run on here that is actually quite good and he simply needs to remind voters of it. Moreover, Romney has stumbled multiple times on foreign policy including as recently as the last debate. His performance on the world stage has not been good and, on top of that, he's selling some positions that are tough to sell. Romney will talk tough on Iran and, to the extent that that sounds like pushing for another war, it will not resonate with a lot of voters.

Why that's wrong: The first two debates have proven Romney to be a very adept debater. And I don't mean that in the "spin room" sense to set him up for high expectations. I simply mean that he comes to every debate prepared with a game plan and he executes well. The concerns I've raised above are not news to him as his team has raised them I'm sure. They have a plan for everything I've outlined and Romney will be prepared. Finally, there also aren't a lot of undecideds ready to jump to the President's side. There is an enthusiasm gap the President can make up by energizing Democratic voters ... but foreign policy isn't what they're interested in. Indeed, we may see fewer Democratic voters tuning in tonight than in the previous two debates (just a theory).

So what will happen? I think the effect of the debate is going to depend much more on what Romney does and says than what the President does and says. If he makes a big mistake like his mistake on Libya, that could hurt him. If he shines and stands toe-to-toe with the President on the President's turf (foreign policy), I think this debate could help Romney. If I were betting on these outcomes, I'd say Romney having a good night is the 2:1 favorite. And that has me a bit nervous tonight.

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