We’ve made the case that not only the first presidential debate but the debates as a whole recast the race and vaulted Mitt Romney into a position to win the race. Pollster Charlie Cook is the latest election guru to agree. He writes on swing voters’ reaction to the debates:
The swing voters expressed shock and dismay at Obama’s underwhelming performance and surprise that Romney seemed pretty impressive. They discovered that he didn’t foam at the mouth and seemed to be making some reasonable and coherent arguments. In the words of Terri, one participant, “I am looking at [Romney] with new eyes.”
Even in the two subsequent debates, Romney came across as someone whom voters disappointed in Obama’s performance as president (after all, if they approved of Obama’s record they would not be in a focus group of undecided voters) would see as worthy of consideration.
A strong performance in that first debate would have probably closed the sale for Obama. Instead, his lackluster showing shifted a bunch of voters who had seemed to be drifting gradually in his direction back into neutral, with some reversing course and moving into Romney’s column.
This was precisely what the Romney camp found in its own post-debate private focus group, and what no doubt, influenced Romney’s demeanor in the last debate.
Romney’s success in the debates derived from his innate qualities, which had often been overlooked or downplayed (e.g. decency, mastery of detail, a variety of executive experiences) both by the Obama team and the media. But it also stemmed from his decision (and Rep. Paul Ryan’s as well, although he was not yet the VP candidate) to put some meat on the bones of the presidential campaign.
Campaign vets who master the logistics of campaigns will always prefer to keep things vague. But conservative wonks both inside and outside the camp, encouraged by Ryan, who was working in parallel fashion, urged Romney to put out plans on entitlement reform, taxes and the budget. The media were so busy mouthing the Obama talking points that Romney didn’t fill in all the details in such plans that they neglected to notice how many proposals Romney had and how fluently he could discuss them in a debate setting.
By contrast, the media and liberal pols and think tankers never pushed President Obama to present a second-term agenda. When his bore-a-thon speech in Cleveland in June got panned, no one thought to look at the content, or lack thereof, in the 54-minute ordeal. The same yes-men chorus swooned over Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, but again there was no one on the left to speak up and say there was no there, there in a second-term agenda. Obama, encouraged by Democratic operatives and liberal media, remained content to bash Romney without putting out a compelling agenda of his own.
It was this imbalance — between a laconic president bereft of new ideas and a focused challenger with plans — that voters saw in the debates, and ultimately, convinced those looking to leap from Obama that Romney was a responsible and capable alternative.
Romney and the advisers who encouraged him made the right choice in developing substantive policies and selecting Ryan to help articulate them. If Romney goes on to win he should remember those who were bold, trusted the voters and had confidence in the conservative reform agenda. He’ll want them around to help govern. The others? Not so much.