US campaign diary: a poor debate performance from Obama but Romney needs a lot more to change the game

by Nikhil Dyundi

So Mitt Romney did well and president Obama phoned in his performance. It was unexpected and the Republicans are good for their positive headlines, but is it a game changer?

Simple answer: no.

There was no defining exchange, no zinger and no nightmare flub that can recast a candidate in an instant. We’ve already had one of those this electoral cycle. Rick Perry is a case study in what makes for one of those defining moments and unless I missed something, President Obama didn’t end up saying “oops” as he forgot one of his central policies.

If anything, the debate was just boring. Too many words from both candidates, too few answers, just charges repeated ad infinitum while the chair palpably failed to drive the exchanges with the vigour and verve that would have made for good TV.

Out in the country, opinions have already been formed. Nothing on Wednesday makes Mitt Romney less of the vulture capitalist. It’s impossible to undo weeks of dreadful headlines and little attempt was made by Romney to even address his negatives with voters.

The full impact of the debate will take time to percolate through the rolling 3 day samples of the tracker polls, but the one pollster who did a post-debate tracker –Ipsos Reuters – seems to validate this view.

Ipsos-Reuters post-debate tracker is based on responses late on Wednesday and through yesterday. It does show a lift for Romney, with President Obama’s advantage dropping from 48%-39% in the pre-debate sample to 48%-43% for post-debate respondents.

Yikes you might think – Romney just halved Obama’s lead. Hang on though. The post-debate sample will have some extra volatility given it’s concentration in the period of positive media coverage for Romney following the debate. And most importantly, Romney’s uplift has not come at the expense of Obama’s support.

Romney has secured some of the Republican leaning undecided, but there is no evidence of switching.

On the assumption, Obama picks up his game for the next debate and can finish a sentence without saying “errr”, this will be as good as it gets for Romney.

Even if Obama was to turn in a similar performance next time out, it is still doubtful whether the basic dynamic of the race would be shifted.

The first debate tends to be the impact encounter. It’s the first time the gladiators clash and draws the crowds. My hunch? Ratings for the next debate on 16th October will be down. There is always a drop-off after the first debate but the lack of spectacle in Denver will accelerate this trend.

Another solid Romney victory in a second debate with lower ratings and public interest would confirm that he was competitive but not achieve the type of breakthrough with Democrat leaning voters that he needs.

Add in new figures that seize the news agenda, like today’s drop in unemployment below 8% and local issues in swing states like the auto bailout in Ohio or Medicare in Florida, and the salience of Wednesday’s session in Denver diminishes even further.

The structure of the race is firmly established and it will take a lot more than what we saw on Wednesday to upend it.

But that won’t deter the media. They need to have something to write about and the debate cycle provides ready content to fill blank pages, pixels and hours of coverage.

Next up on Thursday is a warm-up for the second presidential face-off, a clash that has the potential to be the most interesting that of all of the debate match-ups: Biden versus Ryan. This almost certainly will have zero bearing on the public’s ultimate choice for leader, but there’s a chance Ryan could say something stupid.

He has made a habit of over-reaching in this campaign. Whether it was making claims on the auto bailout that were factually wrong during his convention speech or claiming to be some form of near Olympian marathon runner, he is a man with a needy streak: he has to be the biggest and best even when the facts don’t fit.

As the great Republican budget brain and putative hope for 2016, Thursday is Ryan’s big chance.  It has all the potential for an extravagant claim that then gets unpicked and dominates the next few news cycles.

It’s not too outlandish to think that within one week of a pretty poor presidential performance, the media might be focused again on yet more Republican self-harm.

Here’s hoping.

Nikhil Dyundi is a registered Democrat and a political consultant

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One Response to “US campaign diary: a poor debate performance from Obama but Romney needs a lot more to change the game”

  1. Robert says:

    The strange thing is that I care more about this year’s Presidential election in the US than the last two General Elections in the UK. Obama has actually been a better President than I expected in 2008 and quite left-wing for a US politician.

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