Regarding the third and final presidential debate of 2012, the conventional wisdom is essentially all true:
Romney needed to show himself to a credible alternative. (He did.)
Romney needed to appear presidential. (He did.)
Obama needed to land a knockout blow. (He didn’t.)
If that’s where it ended, Romney would be the winner. The polls are moving his direction. He has the momentum. All he needed to do was be credible, be presidential, and not mess up. But more than that happened in this debate.
A couple of flash polls are showing that Obama narrowly edged Romney “on points.” That is largely because of the advantage that incumbents have on foreign policy: A sitting president has the strength of already being Commander-in-Chief. He has specific accomplishments to which he can point. Challengers have the harder task of making a broader, and far more general, claim that they would somehow do better. Add in Obama’s aggressiveness, a tactic that is often seen as “winning” a debate, and you may have a recipe that gives some people, and some pundits, reason to call this a narrow win for Obama “on points.”
But this debate wasn’t about points, it was about style and perception. And on that score, Romney was devastating . . . and Obama once again shot himself in the foot (though not as badly as in the first debate).
Romney skillfully avoided the traps Obama was hoping he’d step into. He didn’t come across as excessively hawkish, slavishly devoted to a hawkish GOP base, or George Bush redux. In several areas, there was little daylight between them on the issues. At times, Romney was even able to position himself ever so slightly to Obama’s left, such as early in the debate when he spoke about helping the Muslim world to overcome radicalism through cooperative assistance rather than force.
In a nation suffering from Obama fatigue and a stagnating economy, undecided voters are not too obsessive about foreign policy specifics. They want a reason to support the challenger. They just need to know that he can do the job. Romney gave them that.
First, he did something very clever. In the previous debates, he was treated like the incumbent. In the second debate, for example, the questions sounded as if they were clearly chosen to challenge Romney, not the incumbent. In both of the first two debates, Obama went on the attack as if Romney was the sitting president with a record to defend. In this third debate, Romney owned it. Not by defending a record, but by acting like a winner. Here’s Chris Wallace:
Obama was desperate. Slashing, personal, cutting. Romney was big-picture. He had an agenda. (Yuval Levin makes similar points here.)
If Obama is looking to win this election, appearing like the desperate challenger is not going to help. It just looks, well . . . desperate, and desperation is not attractive. He reduced his own stature, as Politico’s John Harris states clearly in this exchange:
The final point in the video above is the essential one: How did this play with indies and undecideds?
One hint comes from a PPP poll, as this Tweet from Numbers Muncher shows:
NumbersMuncher @NumbersMuncher PPP post-debate INDYs only key stat: “More/less likely to vote after debate” – Obama 32 more/48 less. Romney 47 more/35 less.
(More on this from Josh Jordan.) Whatever happened on points, Romney won more of the middle. That is what he needed to do. If all Obama has left is a base-turnout model, he’s going to lose.
What indies saw may not be quite what the bases of each candidate saw. A sitting president should be calm and in charge, not hacking and making petty jabs like, “We have these ships now called aircraft carriers. Planes land on them.” Instead, it was Romney who appeared calm and in charge. And it worked: Romney passed the vital commander-in-chief test, and Obama reminded voters of what they finally discovered in the first debate: Obama isn’t the unicorn-riding lightworker the media has been touting for four years. Rather, he’s a somewhat petty, vindictive person with no agenda for the next four years. As Jeffrey Dunetz writes, the debate was Presidential Romney Vs. Petty Obama. That’s hardly likely to stanch the bleeding at Obama HQ.
MR. SCHIEFFER: What if what if the prime minister of Israel called you on the phone and said: Our bombers are on the way. We’re going to bomb Iran. What do you say?
MR. ROMNEY: Bob, let’s not go into hypotheticals of that nature. Our relationship with Israel, my relationship with the prime minister of Israel is such that we would not get a call saying our bombers are on the way or their fighters are on the way. This is the kind of thing that would have been discussed and thoroughly evaluated well before that kind of action.
As strong blows go, that is understated, but powerful. He didn’t go after Obama directly (thus helping him to appear above-the-fray and less petty than Obama); rather, he took the moderator to school for asking an unrealistic question. That showed command of the issues, strength, and gravitas. (It was also a subtle reminder that he has a personal relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, which, while not generally known, will tickle a few savvy voters in vital swing states like Florida.)
Also, on the subject of points, let us not forget that this election is about the economy, not foreign policy, and on that score, Romney did very well at injecting his economic message without it seeming too artificially shoehorned in. Specifically on the subject of the economy, polls showed Romney won the second debate, and when the dust settles, we may find that he did the same last night.
People on the left are, predictably, trying to psych themselves up about how Obama’s performance in last night’s debate has changed the momentum. Needless to say, some on the right are similarly pumped up. But only one can win, and at the moment, the trendlines favor Romney. Obama’s “victory” in the second debate did nothing to slow that trend. Though nothing is certain, it seems likely that the same will be the case for last night’s debate. As J-Pod says, Romney got the job done. Hugh Hewitt is similarly optimistic, and elections guru Michale Barone concludes his piece on the debate by saying that “the polling data suggests that Romney is now ahead and is likely to be elected.”
I have been saying for months that this race was always Romney’s to lose. If he does win, the contrast between his calm, presidential demeanor and Barack Obama’s petty, dismissive arrogance in last night’s debate will be remembered as one of the factors . . . and possibly as the final moment that the movement in Romney’s direction reached the point of no return.