Politics watchers are understandably fixated on the polls after the first presidential debate and the difficulty of measuring the size of Mitt Romney’s bounce. Romney clearly made gains, but the polls disagree on how big it was, and on whether the bounce has ended. Personally, I am suspending judgment about the extent to which the debate helped Romney until we see a full round of polling from Ohio. The first Ohio polls contain positive news for Romney.
But his most important achievement cannot be measured by polls. What he did was change the political mood — of the media coverage, and of partisans on both sides. I’ve been in Ohio and Virginia over the past few days, and my utterly unscientific conversations suggest there is still too much talk about the debate for President Obama’s own good. Obama partisans keep asking, “What happened?” Obama needs them asking: “What do we do next?”
Moods matter because they shape decisions. Going into the debate, Romney looked like a loser. The coverage reflected that. Republican comments (usually off-the-record) reflected that. The rumors reflected that — including the one that Romney was on the verge of “pulling out” of Ohio. There was talk of the big Republican funders shifting money from the presidential race to House and Senate races. The possibility of a large Obama victory margin was giving heart to Democratic candidates all the way down the ballot.
All that has stopped. Obama supporters still don’t expect him to lose, but they are fidgety and unhappy. True, Democrats are playing up the fact that the fallout from the debate has made Obama more aggressive on the stump. Many are finally focusing on the extraordinary Etch-a-Sketch transformation of Romney from a right-winger to a guy who plays a kind of moderate on TV — which is what I wrote about in my immediate post-debate column. But for perfectly good reasons, the president’s partisans can’t stop themselves from coming back to their surprise and disappointment with Obama in the debate. Obama himself keeps coming back to the debate, too, perhaps because he knows his side feels let down.
After all the talk about game-changers, the Obama team badly needs a mood-changer. This could come from a new Romney gaffe, but the upbeat mood about him probably means he’ll get media breaks this week that he didn’t get before. Good polling for Obama in Ohio might break the fever.
But Obama may have to wait for Vice President Biden to change the mood for him. Thursday’s vice presidential debate is almost certainly the most important VP debate we’ve ever had. Rarely has a vice presidential candidate been as closely associated with his party’s views and philosophical commitments as Paul Ryan is. And Obama really needs a blowout performance from Biden. Only rarely do presidential candidates need to bank so much on their running mates. The closest analogy is to George W. Bush, who needed and got a good 2004 performance from Dick Cheney after John Kerry routed Bush in the first debate.
Biden feels a lot of pressure already, but my strong hunch is that he will deliver the mood-change Obama needs. During the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, I always thought Biden’s debate performances were underrated — here, for example, is my take on a debate in 2007 — and Obama thought this, too, one reason why he chose Biden as his running mate. Ryan, in the meantime, will have a double agenda in his head: He wants to advance Romney’s chances, but he is also playing for his own long-term political career. This will necessarily complicate Ryan’s approach. Biden, on the other hand, has one clear goal, which is to throw the Republican ticket back on the defensive over its (actual) policies.
For Obama, Thursday night cannot come too soon.