Wednesday night’s first presidential debate has thrown calculations about the presidential contest into some disarray, though it probably won’t be until after the weekend that sufficient public opinion surveys will have appeared to get a sense of whether Mitt Romney’s undisputed (if perhaps disputed in its extent or implications) win over the president will have any impact on the actual race, which has been remarkably stable for a very long time.
Political Scientist John Sides is one of the few to make a specific prediction: that Romney would likely enjoy a 1.25% “bump” in national polls, at least temporarily. Some observers who had earlier thought Romney’s prospects for victory were evaporating viewed his debate performance as crucial in keeping donors from cutting their losses and focusing on downballot races.
In terms of the strategic impact of the first debate, the general view is that Romney sought and to some extent succeeded in repositioning himself to “the political center,” via his hedging on his earlier tax cut proposal, his passionate declaration of interest in public education and the protection of Medicare, his claims of possessing a viable alternative to Obamacare that would protect those with pre-existing conditions, and his assertion that he’d been more open to bipartisan cooperation than Obama. It appears this tack by Romney threw the Obama campaign off-balance, contributing to a low-key and not terribly responsive performance by the president (who had allegedly decided against too many sharp attacks on his struggling opponent). Interestingly, after months and months of demands by conservatives that Romney run a sharply ideological “choice” campaign based on his running-mate’s budget, his very different tack in the debate drew virtually no criticism, presumably because conservatives were so delighted by Obama’s discomfiture and “defeat.” The framing of the debate by moderator Jim Lehrer made it very difficult for Obama to bring up Romney’s vulnerabilities on cultural issues, though it’s surprising he didn’t find a way to bring up Mitt’s recently revealed remarks about “the 47%.”
The Obama campaign and other Democrats have turned immediately to intensive attacks on Romney’s debate assertions, trying to make Mitt’s mendacity the center of attention rather than horse-race assessments of who won the debate. The specifics of Romney’s tax proposals (issued during the primary season when he was under intense pressure to embrace a big tax cut) are now dissolving in confusion, as he seems to be making an upper-end tax cut contingent on deficit-neutrality and maintenance of the current distribution of the tax burden. His claims to cover people with pre-existing conditions in his “health care plan” are looking to be far less credible, and were largely repudiated by his staff immediately after the debate.
It may be a bit more difficult for Paul Ryan to emulate Romney’s gambit in his debate with the Vice President on October 11, and moreover, Obama should be more comfortable than Romney with the “town hall” format of the next presidential debate on October 16, when sharp-elbowed questions to the Republican will likely be offered by voters. Even more obviously, expectations will be different after Romney’s success in the first event.
Republicans needed the good news on the presidential front, because prospects for a Senate takeover by the GOP continue to worsen. Aside from being stuck with Todd Akin in Missouri (who trailed Claire McCaskill by 6 points in two new polls this last week), Republicans have new concerns about two candidates (Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Jeff Flake in Arizona) initially expected to win easily, and their candidates in Montana (Denny Rehberg), North Dakota (Rick Berg), and Nevada (Dean Heller) aren’t putting away opponents as anticipated. With some signs that long-deadocked races in Massachusetts and Virginia could be breaking in favor of Democrats, about the only recent good news has been the strong performance of Linda McMahon in Connecticut, though national Democrats are beginning to intervene in that race to counter her personal spending.
This morning’s September Jobs Report, showing the unemployment rate dropping to 7.8% (the lowest rate since Obama took office), could muddy up the political landscape even more, if only by interrupting the non-stop media coverage of Romney’s debate performance.
In a bit of news that will afflict all political junkies along with future researchers, the media consortium that conducts exit polls announced it would not do state-specific polling in 19 states deemed uncompetitive (though voters in those states may be surveyed as part of a national sample). So for the first time since 1992, we’ll have a presidential cycle without detailed breakdowns of demographics and presidential/downballot performance for all 50 states (the whole system broke down in the midterm elections of 2002).