Obama won the debate on points. But some 'morning after' fact checking might even out the score
By Tim Stanley US politics Last updated: October 17th, 2012
Obama won Tuesday night’s debate. His performance was far stronger second time around, more aggressive, more personal, and he commanded the floor. By contrast, some of the bad old Mitt from the primaries was back. The Republican shuffled around the stage and seem to tire halfway through. As he often does under pressure, Romney talked in innuendoes. Asked a question about achieving gender balance in the workplace, he replied, “Thankyou, that's an important topic” – which longtime Mitt followers know is code for “I never thought about that before.” He then told the audience that, as Governor of Massachusetts, in his search for potential female appointees he had been shown “binders full of women.” Ahem. What he learned from this experience was that. “If you’re gonna have women in the workforce, they need to be more flexible.” Oh my. I know what he meant: you know what he meant. But the smutty minded on Twitter were in stitches.
Obama exploited Romney’s flaws. He reminded the audience that the Republican pays just over 14 per cent in federal taxes (although he tops that up with generous charitable donations) and that he u-turned on an assault weapons ban. Romney set himself up for a painful reminder of his remarks about the 47 per cent by pledging to represent “the 100 per cent of Americans.” Predictably, Obama replied by trotting out Romney’s infamous closed-door statement about welfare recipients. In this manner, almost every Romney attack was blunted. And, as the evening wore on, the President's smile grew and he interjected more often. In fact it started to feel like he was getting more time and more generous questions. But that might have been a testament to his performance rather than a conspiracy by the organisers.
However, there are two factors that might even out Obama’s win. First, Romney was on form when talking about the economic issues – where the numbers speak for themselves. Mitt consistently won points when he was able to cite high unemployment, high debt or spiralling prices. When Obama told the audience that the rising price of gas was a sign of economic improvement, a few folks at home had to choke on their root beers. Romney synchronised those themes nicely in his closing message, when he was personal, idealistic and dignified. Recall that what won Romney the first debate wasn’t just his combativeness but also his centrism – the projection of a statesmanlike image that goes down well with swing voters desperately looking for an alternative to Obama. It’s noteworthy that undecideds in Frank Luntz’s televised focus group seemed to think that Romney won. His brand as a competent moderate isn’t diminished.
Second, Obama’s numbers might flag after a bit of fact checking is done. There were all sorts of examples of the President winging it on facts (oil drilling, gas prices etc), but the biggest snafu was on Libya. The most tense moment of the debate came when Romney accused Obama of bungling his response to the assault on the US embassy in Benghazi and falsely reporting it as a popular demonstration rather than a terrorist attack. The President asserted that he called it a terror attack all along and – remarkably – the moderator interrupted to support Obama’s claim, citing the text of a speech he gave shortly after the events unfolded. In fact, in that speech Obama did not call Benghazi a terrorist attack but instead spoke vaguely and in general terms about the US never being undone by “acts of terror.” The position of that phrase in the speech suggests that he was actually referring to 9/11. In a follow up statement, he did not mention terror attacks at all. That’s probably because his administration continued to deny that it was a terrorist attack for 14 days after – whether for reasons of incompetence or political expediency we can only guess.
On live TV, it appeared that Romney lost the exchange by being corrected by the President, then the moderator and then by the audience who applauded Obama’s staunch self-defence. It was great TV. But not only was it misleading, but Romney’s central point was far more pertinent. In the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack on a US embassy, the President of the United States flew to Las Vegas for a campaign fundraiser. It begs the question, what would it take to get Obama to cancel a fundraiser? World War III?
Be in no doubt, this was a much needed shot in the arm for Obama’s campaign. But how it will play out is less obvious. It’s hard to imagine that independents worried about college tuition, gas prices, jobs or debt will change their vote based on one debate. That said, Obama has run and won on rheotric before.
After posting this, I took a couple of hours sleep, woke up and looked at the polls. They present a more mixed impression of the evening than the live event suggested. CNN shows an Obama win overall, but it also has Romney ahead on the economy (18 points) and leadership (3 points). CBS, again, found that Obama won the debate. But it also reports that Romney leads on the economy by 65 to 34 per cent. The implication is that Obama won on style and Romney on many specifics. More later.