Ah… back to normal. At Hofstra University in New York, both Governor Romney and President Obama appeared to revert back to type after the strange swap that seemed to occur in the first debate. That is to say, Romney once again displayed his tendency to hurt himself, while Obama was able to truly engage with his audience; something he has so far failed to do with anything close to the success he had in 2008. The second presidential debate (or third, including the vice-presidential debate) took place in the form of a town hall meeting, where the candidates would answer questions directly from the audience, rather than a moderator. In this format, it is much harder to turn any response into an attack on the other candidate. Both Obama and Romney tried to do so anyway, regardless, but, in general, direct responses that actually answered the questions being asked got (understandably) the best response from the crowd.
The style of debate definitely seemed to suit Obama more, as he is still widely perceived to be the more likeable of the two candidates – and certainly the better at engaging a crowd. Early on, he criticised Romney over his opposition to the federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler. This was an inevitable line of attack, especially considering that the car industry accounts for around an eighth of employment in Ohio, which is widely seen as the prime battleground state.
To put the importance of Ohio in this election into perspective, Governor Romney has spent at least seven of the last ten days campaigning in Ohio and none in other states. In fairness, no Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio, so there is some historical basis for his (and Obama’s) aggressive campaigning there.
What was more surprising was how often Obama was able to control the tone of the debate for each topic. Early on, he had Romney reminding 65.6 million Americans that he wanted to let America’s major car manufacturers go bankrupt. Later, even though Obama hadn’t mentioned Romney’s now-infamous “47%” comments once, Romney himself referred to them indirectly, allowing Obama another line of attack on the taped comments. In perhaps the most emotionally charged moment of the night, President Obama commented on the death of the US ambassador to Libya, along with those of three other Americans. He claimed it was his fault as commander-in-chief that the Americans had died; refuting Hillary Clinton’s earlier statements that she has to take the blame. Romney accused the president of failing to immediately acknowledge the events as a terrorist attack, for no reason other than political gain. The moderator, Candy Crowley, actually corrected Romney, prompting Obama to add “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Examples like this show how even on areas where Obama should be weak, he was able to debate more strongly this time and was much more aggressive going after Romney.
This performance appears to have paid off too; a CNN/ORC poll held afterwards showed 46% of likely voters believed Obama had won the debate, versus 39% who believed Romney had won. This narrow lead is all the more impressive considering the debate audience leaned more Republican than the country as a whole, and that Obama was perceived as having lost the first debate by a wide margin. 73% believed Obama had performed better than expected in this debate.
A CNN/ORC poll held afterwards showed 46% of likely voters believed Obama had won the debate, versus 39% who believed Romney had won.
Conversely, Romney wasn’t as strong the second time around; in many ways, it was going to be hard to match his first debate performance and post-expectation. In addition to seemingly allowing Obama his chosen lines of attack, he sounded repetitive in this debate whilst his “binders full of women” remark raised many eyebrows. The deaths in Libya aside; virtually all of his criticisms of the president were focused on the economy – or more specifically jobs and debt. Perhaps this is prudent considering the importance that the economy holds in every election, but it is difficult to focus several accumulative hours of debates on just these two issues. With around three weeks left in the election, voters already tend to trust Romney more on economic issues. No new monthly results on unemployment or growth will be released before voting closes, so going into the final debate and latter stages of the election Romney is going to hold the advantage on economic issues. Time will tell if that will be enough, but it looks unlikely to swing the White House in his direction currently.
Clearly, Romney is playing to his strengths; voters, in general, already trust the Governor more than Obama to improve America’s economic situation. On virtually every other measure; foreign policy, likeability, concern for the middle class, et al, Obama remains ahead. In short, Romney will have to become more “likeable” over the next three weeks, to convince any remaining undecided voters that he deserves their vote. As shallow as this may sound, the truth is that at this late stage both parties and both candidates have laid out the vast majority of their policy ideas by now. Superficial aspects, like a gaffe or ill-advised comment from a campaign manager, tend to have a noticeable effect for only a short amount of time. With such little time left, those same superficial details could change the minds of late voters for the rest of October, after which voting closes and the damage has been done. Governor Romney can’t afford any more mishaps if he wants to win this election. He needs to throw out his “binders full of women”.