We can all agree: Worst wedding anniversary ever! Poor Michelle Obama! She’s the only person in the hemisphere who didn’t fire off a tweet saying that President Obama had a face-plant in the first debate. There was a note of hysteria in some of the debate analysis: Some bloggers came close to declaring the contest over. In fact, let me type up the headline “President Romney” right now, just for SEO purposes.
I’m dubious that a debate like this has a dramatic impact. Voters don’t judge candidates based on the style points that are so beloved by pundits. This isn’t going to come down to which candidate made better eye contact during a debate. The two parties really do have different policy platforms, and voters for the most part have their minds made up already. But it’s still a close contest, so even a small swing in Romney’s direction could translate into a completely different electorate map. [But, to be clear, I don’t think that'll happen — I doubt that a bad night by the president is going to cost him re-election.]
We’ll see. I’m out here in a swing area of a swing state — I’m just down the street from the Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field. Today I’ll talk to voters and will duly report what they say. They get to decide. I know it’s kind of old-fashioned to do person-on-the-street interviews, but I’d rather do that than read blogs and tweets. Most people are happy to talk about their political beliefs, but some are understandably reserved, and a few recoil, as if I’ve said to them, “Let me see what kind of underwear you have on.”
My colleagues and I watched the debate in a sports bar. There were 20 TVs, ranging from very large to enormous. None had the debate on — it’s a sports bar, as I said — but we persuaded the management to put the debate on in an adjoining room. I wouldn't draw a big conclusion from this, other than to say that if you’re watching a political debate in a sports bar in Green Bay you do feel a little bit like a weirdo.
From the start, Obama seemed hesitant and uncomfortable, and as the evening wore on he got that peevish look, as if he wanted to say to Jim Lehrer, “Jim, he can’t talk to me like that, can he?” Obama looked like he was channeling royalty, perhaps Queen Elizabeth II.
Strategically the plan seemed to be to run out the clock. Make no mistakes. Avoid sacks and interceptions. Someone must have told him, ”Boss, this race is yours to lose,” and he wound up doing his best to make that happen.
Mitt Romney looked calm, energetic, sharp and, most importantly, didn’t sound like a goofy right-wing plutocrat. (He had the one slightly awkward moment when he referred to “poor” people and then corrected himself, calling them “lower-income” Americans. No: Poor people, in my direct experience, say they are “poor.” They can’t afford euphemisms.)
What we saw last night was a Republican candidate who beat all opponents during a long and grinding primary process and who is battle-hardened and comfortable in a debate. And he clearly decided to play to the middle, not to his base. This is the Romney the Democrats thought had been locked in a basement several years ago while a guy who looks like him but is a hard-right ideologue took his place. Elections are won in the middle and Romney helped himself last night by sounding like someone who swing voters could support.
That’s my impression, at least, but let’s ask the swing voters themselves today here in Wisconsin. And fyi — there are a lot of them. We’ve found far more true swing voters here than we saw in Ohio and Virginia the last couple of weeks. This is the land of the “Bush-Obama” voters. Bush in ‘04, Obama in ‘08. And in ‘12?
Gonna be close, like I keep saying.