In case you had not heard yet, President Obama had a poor first debate on Wednesday night. From the start, the president looked tired, unfocused and unprepared. His answers were rambling, his personal anecdotes were few, and his effective punches were even fewer. He never mentioned the “47 percent” video, Bain Capital or any number of other attacks that have hurt Republican nominee Mitt Romney both across the country and in swing states. Aside from two sequences — Obama getting Romney to concede that his Medicare plan is essentially a voucher and asking if Romney was “keeping all [his] plans secret because they’re too good”— the president was certainly outclassed.
And yet, the president’s supporters would be wrong to wring their hands. Fundamentally, Obama’s loss will not matter. At most, Wednesday night was a case of “too little, too late” for Romney. Yes, the polls will probably move a point or two in Romney’s direction after the first debate. But all the evidence suggests that for Romney, whether or not you believe he should be president, closing the gap and beating Obama is a bridge too far.
Consider the task facing Romney going into Wednesday’s debate: Nationally, RealClearPolitics’s poll average had him down three points; Nate Silver’s model had him down four. He had held a lead in a major poll exactly once since the end of August. The electoral college looked even worse for him: RealClear’s map gave Obama 269 electoral votes safe or leaning to Romney’s 181 (with 88 in toss-up states); HuffPost Pollster gave Obama a 290-191 lead; and Nate Silver’s model had Obama winning an average of 319 electoral votes to Romney’s 218, a comfortable margin. Even Karl Rove had 277 votes safe or leaning to Obama, with another 70 as toss-ups.
“Ah,” you say, “that may be true, but surely the gap is small enough to close? And wouldn’t the first debate be enough to bring this race back to a dead heat?” In a word, no.
Let’s start with the second question. Incumbent presidents almost always have a poor first debate: George W. Bush lost to John Kerry in 2004, for example, and Walter Mondale beat Ronald Reagan so badly in 1984 that there was a spate of articles asking if the incumbent was too old for the presidency. Yet never has a challenger’s strong first debate performance closed as large a national polling gap as Romney faced going into last night’s debate. Furthermore, most post-debate polling bumps come from previously undecided voters, of which there is a historically small amount in this campaign, thus making it even less likely that Romney could exceed past norms. And Romney would need to outdo history by quite a distance — only Harry Truman has come back from a national deficit as large or larger than Romney’s at this point in the campaign.
If Romney would have to pull off a miracle to close the gap in national polling, he has no shot at matching the president in the electoral college. As mentioned above, forecasters commonly predict that Obama already has a big lead of safe and leaning states. If we assume Romney will improve in the polls, there would be around nine “swing states”: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. There’s one problem here for Romney: He is trailing, and has been consistently trailing, in all but two — North Carolina, where he’s held a small lead, and Florida, this election’s closest thing to a 50-50 state. Romney doesn’t need to win two out of those nine; in almost every scenario, he will need six or seven out of those nine to win, including at least two or three states where he is behind by several points more than he is nationally.
All of which brings me to the final point: Given the state of the race before last night’s debate, even most Romney backers would agree that a Romney victory would require a flawless campaign the rest of the way from Romney and a blunder or two from Obama. After six years of both these men running for and/or being president of the United States, is there really anyone out there who thinks Mitt Romney can go a month without making a single mistake? Who thinks Barack Obama, who has been playing it safe for at least several months now, will suddenly make a reckless error, as opposed to a merely lackluster performance? (Or, if you’re Sean Hannity and co., do you believe the lamestream media will suddenly forget their liberal bias and stop protecting the president while assaulting Mitt Romney?)
Seriously, does anyone believe that?
The fact is that, come October, presidential elections cannot permanently change course over a few days or hours (unlike, say, media narratives). The majority of voters have already made their decision, and the debates won’t provide enough of a boost to alter the contest’s trajectory. Sadly for Romney, the path the race is stuck on ends with his defeat.
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