President Obama is ultimately responsible for the fallout from his lackluster debate performance two weeks ago — but it’s also true that liberals added to the bad news with several days of complete panic. They grossly overreacted to initial snap polls of the debate, despite the fact that immediate, post-event polling is notoriously shaky.
The CNN snap poll for example, showed a 42 point Romney victory, but failed to mention that white Southerners — a GOP friendly segment of the electorate — were a large part of the sample. Likewise, their snap poll of the vice presidential debate was more Republican than their average poll of all Americans, showing the extent to which debate watchers — as a whole — are mosre likely to support the GOP..
The immediate liberal stampede away from Obama — driven, in part, by the snap polls — hurt his image writ large, and reinforced the view that the first debate was a historic loss for an incumbent president. We don’t know how Obama will perform in this debate, but his supporters are nervous and there’s a good chance that Mitt Romney will give another good performance. Regardless, I think everyone — Republicans and Democrats — would do well to ignore the post-debate polls.
The best case against them is that they don’t tell us much about public opinion. The sample sizes are too small, the circumstances are too idiosyncratic, and the debates themselves are too subject to spin and reinterpretation. At best, the polls give us an idea of how a subset of viewers saw the debate — nothing more and nothing less.
More broadly, partisans — and reporters, for that matter — should spend a little less time obsessing over the debates. They’re billed as the most important events of the political season, but the truth of the matter is that they’re nothing of the sort: The vast bulk of Americans have watched President Obama perform in office for the last four years. The large majority of have already made up their minds about his tenure and their vote. Likewise, they’ve watched Romney campaign for more than a year. He’s given speeches, articulated policies, and gone through all of the motions of a presidential campaign.
There’s just not much more that the debates can tell us. Ultimately, the outcome will not depend on who performed best in four-and-a-half hours of television, stretched out over the course of a month.