Which Way Are The Post-Debate Winds Blowing?

Was the first presidential debate a true game-changer that fundamentally reset a campaign that seemed to be trending in President Obama’s favor?  Or, is it just a bump in the road that won’t have any long-term significance?

The latest polling suggests that the first debate — widely viewed to be a big positive for Mitt Romney — has had a significant impact, in Ohio and nationally.  In Ohio, two post-debate polls show a race in which the candidates are separated by one point — and in one poll, by WeAskAmerica, Mitt Romney actually holds a one-point lead.  To my knowledge, that is the first Ohio poll that has shown Romney with a lead — and those two polls follow a series of polls that showed Obama with an increasing lead.  Nationally, the polls indicate a much tighter race, and the Rasmussen poll gives Romney a two-point edge.

I’m skeptical of the polls this election cycle, because I don’t see how pollsters can forecast turnout with any kind of accuracy.  I’ve thought all along that the race in Ohio is extremely close, regardless of what the polls have said.  But even if you credit the polls, I’m not sure this shift is the result of one debate.  Other things — such as the terrorist attack in Libya and the less-than-flattering stories about security at the American consulate there, increasing gas prices, and the lingering economic doldrums, among other facts — may have seeped into the national consciousness and changed some minds as Election Day draws near.

Whatever the reason, I think the race in Ohio right now is tight as two coats of paint, and is likely to stay that way.  That means more TV ads, more candidate visits, more fliers in the mail, and more polls until Election Day arrives.

A Big Audience For A Big Debate

Last night’s debate was popular with viewers — which probably is good news for Mitt Romney, who is generally regarded as having performed very well.

According to the overnight ratings, 58 million people tuned in to watch the candidates spar over the issues — a number that doesn’t include those who watched on PBS, Univision, or CSPAN or on-line.  Surprisingly, more people watched this debate than watched the first presidential debate in 2008, when President Obama was at the height of his popularity.  The TV audience also was far larger than the viewership for this year’s Democratic and Republican conventions.

I’m glad to see that the American people are paying attention to this election.  I wonder whether the significantly increased viewership for this debate may have been influenced, at least in part, by a desire on the part of some fed-up voters who are sick of silly attack ads and the squawking of the punditocracy, the pollsters, and the spin jockeys, and just wanted to see President Obama and Mitt Romney in their unfiltered state, going toe to toe.  I imagine that most people who watched the debate thought it was a worthwhile and interesting experience, and will encourage their friends to watch the next one.  I’ll bet that the audience for the second debate will be larger still.

I hope that is the case, and I hope that the viewers also are reaching their own conclusions — not about who won or lost a mere debate, or who looked more “presidential,” but about which candidate is best suited for a very tough and important job.  After all, that is the ultimate question that voters must decide.

Second Thoughts On The First Debate

A few additional thoughts on the first debate last night, and its aftermath:

Although Jim Lehrer almost immediately lost control of the rules and format — initial two-minute answers, moderator-led discussion, 15-minute “issue pods” — I’m glad that happened.  Because Lehrer shrank into the background, we got to see direct give-and-take between the candidates.  They took the discussions where they wanted to go, and the results were revealing.  We also were spared the annoying time limit hectoring we’ve had to endure in prior debates.  The ultimate price of Lehrer’s lack of zeal was that only three minutes were available for the last, “governing” issue pod.  I’m sure America will somehow manage to stoically endure that loss.

I watched the debate on CNN, which had a real-time male/female favorability reaction meter running throughout the debate, and I later caught the Frank Luntz focus group on Fox.  These kinds of reaction measuring devices are familiar to trial lawyers, who use focus groups and mock juries to test potential courtroom themes, and they are always interesting to watch.  The peril of focus groups, however, is that they often confirm that viewers (or potential jurors) hear what they want to hear.  One member of the Luntz group, for example, thought Mitt Romney was too vague, another specifically disagreed and said he heard lots of specifics.  They both watched the same debate.  If you are the candidate (or the trial lawyer), which perception do you credit?

The Luntz focus group overwhelmingly thought Romney won, and some members said he changed their voting decisions.  Their big takeaways were that Romney was more decisive and also more capable for reaching a bipartisan consensus on issues.  Those aren’t exactly consistent qualities, yet Romney managed to convince focus group members that he could do both.  Sending that dual message is no mean feat.

I also watched MSNBC, where some commentators bemoaned the President’s performance as lackluster and also thought Romney pushed Lehrer around.  That reaction is interesting, because the President occupied far more debate talking time than Romney did.  Indeed, on one occasion the President overrode Lehrer to get “five more seconds,” then spoke for a much longer period, and on another occasion Romney cordially accepted Lehrer’s instruction that it was time to move on.  It’s another example, I think, of perceptions being colored by preexisting views.  It’s just human nature to blame the refs when your team is losing.

The Questions I’d Like To Hear Answered Tonight

Everyone focuses on the candidates and their preparation for presidential debates, but the moderators deserve attention, too.  After all, it’s the questions the the moderator will ask tonight that will drive the “debate.”

The format for tonight’s debate will consist of six 15-minute segment on topics that have already been announced.  The moderator will open each segment with a question, each candidate will have two minutes to respond, and then the moderator will guide a discussion.  The six topics are:  The Economy – I; The Economy – II; The Economy – III; Health Care; The Role of Government; Governing.

Here are the questions on those topics that I’d like to see asked tonight:

The Economy – I:  Both of you have talked about balancing the budget, a process which would require cuts in spending.  Please identify one specific federal program that you would be willing to eliminate in its entirety in order to achieve a balanced budget.

The Economy – II:  We’ve been reading for years now about the debt crisis in Greece, Italy, and other Eurozone countries.  Should we be learning a lesson from what is happening in Europe, and if so what is that lesson?

The Economy – III:  Do you agree with how the Federal Reserve has managed monetary policy in response to the economic recession?  If not, what would you have done differently?

Health Care:  In your view, should the federal government be involved in attempting to force Americans to lead more healthy lifestyles in the interests of controlling health care costs that are caused by obesity, smoking, and other lifestyle choices?

The Role of Government:  In your view, should the federal government ever make loans or offer tax breaks to particular companies or industries in furtherance of long-term goals, such as increasing sustainable energy sources?

Governing:  What can we do to avoid contrived, stopgap political compromises, like the “debt supercommittee” that failed to agree on debt reduction measures, and get back to a federal government in which Congress actually passes appropriations bills, budgets, and other legislation and the President then signs or vetoes those bills, as the Constitution contemplates?

I’d like to see short, pointed questions, and some follow-up that doesn’t allow candidates to dodge the questions.  No touchy-feely subjects, either (especially on a topic like “governing”).  We’ve got some serious, concrete problems in this country; those problems should be discussed in concrete terms.