Sports metaphors are overdone in politics, but the first Presidential debate was like watching a team trying to sit on a lead and thus allowing the opposition to take risks and score points. Governor Romney pulled no punches and went out hungry to win. Obama played prevent, didn’t go on the attack with the themes from his campaign, and tried to simply make sure he didn’t do anything stupid.
If you’re a football fan, you know that sitting on a lead is dangerous. It takes you off your game and risks giving the other side the momentum. By the time you realize you’re in danger the dynamic that gave you the lead is gone. When he’s at his best President Obama is crisp and direct. He displayed that in his debates with Senator McCain in 2008. In the first 2012 Presidential debate he seemed to be going through the motions, giving well rehearsed lines, ever so careful not to veer off course.
One got the sense Romney wanted to be there for a debate, and Obama wanted to run down the clock. The result: a consensus that Romney won the debate and thus his candidacy is not in the dire straights it would have been had Obama crushed him.
Will this turn the race around? I suspect polls will give Romney a bounce and within a week we’ll be describing the race again as neck and neck, perhaps with an ever so slight lead for Obama. If that doesn’t happen – if Obama stays up in the polls by 3 to 5% with decent leads in battleground states, that would be bad news for Romney. If it does happen, and I suspect it will, this is the best possible result for Governor Romney.
Simply, it puts him back in the game. However, he won the debate on style, not substance. Obama was so careful he came off as listless. He didn’t make any errors, but didn’t take any chances. He preferred statistics to zingers. He stressed points of agreement with Governor Romney as much as he stressed differences. Romney did best when he talked in broad terms about the role of government, Obama did best in pointing out that Romney’s vague and unable to say exactly what he’ll do.
I still believe that to really turn this around Romney needs to do more than be energetic and articulate in a debate. He has to convince people he has a plan, and lay out details that show it’ll be more than the same Republican policies of the past. He’s not yet done that, so he has not turned this race around. The smart money is still on Obama.
To go back to the sports metaphor: Obama led 24-10 a few minutes into the 4th quarter. They decided to run the ball and an aggressive Romney defense stopped them twice. After the first stop they scored a field goal, after the second they went for a touchdown. Now it’s 24-20 going into the second half of the fourth quarter. Team Obama knows that if they don’t do something they’ll create an opening for a last minute comeback victory for Team Romney.
What Obama needs to do:
1. Come out more aggressively in the second debate and prove he wants it. Leave wonky Obama at home and go for the argument of principles and the human cost of policies.
2. Shift advertising away from the 47% tape (that’s run its course) and move towards making Romney’s vagueness in the debates an issue. Advertising about Romney’s failure to be specific about his plans will highlight Obama’s strong points and create a sense that the debates were not an unambiguous success for Romney.
Ultimately, the best news in this for Obama is that none of his supporters can think they’ve got this in the bag — Romney’s still got a chance.
What Romney needs to do:
1. Make a specific argument about what he’ll do in the future. I suspect many in his camp still think that unnecessary – after all, he won a debate by being vague, and debates are judged on style, not substance. But winning debates doesn’t win the election. He has to still convince voters he has a vision and a plan for the future. Romney needs to show why you should vote for him, not just against Obama.
2. Shift advertising to the 47%! That sounds crazy, but bear with me. The 47% tape has done all the damage it can do. But can the damage be undone? Sure – by turning a problem into a benefit. Romney should use this as an excuse to emphasize how much concern he has for all Americans and to repudiate the ideas he seemed to show with that tape.
3. The $5 trillion dollar ad. Romney should also emphasize the debate and Obama’s claim Romney wants $5 trillion in tax cuts by juxtaposing Obama’s claim with Romney’s denial that he wants such massive tax cuts. He can use that to make a strong case that the claims Obama makes about what Romney wants to do are not what Romney really wants to do. That will cause people to doubt all the negative ads from the Obama campaign, undercuting their influence.
Bottom line: we have a real contest here. As an Obama supporter I’d prefer it to be otherwise. But as someone who enjoys watching an exciting political battle I know the next 34 days will be fun!