Reagan/Carter debate, 2.0

Campaign reenergized as Governor Romney owned the debates

Chris Matthews looked like he was about to have a meltdown: “What was Romney doing? He was WINNING,” he yelled after what had roundly been viewed as a resounding win for Governor Romney in the first presidential debate on Wednesday evening. Echoing Matthews was a chorus of negative reviews by political pundits on the left:

“Obama looks like he does need a teleprompter … How did the president prepare for this?! … The president seemed listless … angry at times. … He seemed testy … Romney wanted to be there, [the president] didn’t want to be there.” The response from right-leaning pundits was even more emphatic, and in all of the post-debate panels there was one clear theme: Romney dominated the debate, relentlessly hitting President Obama on the specifics of his policies. The president seemed unable to respond to his surprisingly energetic challenger. While President Obama spoke for four minutes longer than did Romney, the governor was able to effectively own the stage, as he completely controlled the debate on the economy, Medicare, and healthcare.

The real question, of course, is whether the win will translate into votes. Make no mistake, it will. While there are a few debates of recent historical significance (Reagan/Carter, Nixon/Kennedy, Clinton/Bush) that arguably have provided flashpoints in the respective races, it has been generally accepted that debates rarely make a large difference in elections. However this seemed to be one such historic debate. Similar to the Reagan/Carter debate, the incumbent seemed unable to defend his own record, and the American voters were introduced to a challenger who looked at times like he fit the role of president more than the incumbent. In fact, according to an opinion in The Washington Times: “Not since Jimmy Carter faced Ronald Reagan has the U.S. presidency been so embarrassingly represented in public.”

Going into the debate, American’s believed 2 to 1 that the President would win the debate. Following the debate, only 25 percent believed that he did. Of registered voters polled by CNN, Romney bested the president in every category polled, from the economy to overall favorability. Of those polled, 58 percent believed that Romney came off as a stronger leader, while 35 percent stated that they were more likely to vote for the governor given the debate’s outcome (compared to 18 percent for the president).

Historically, such a reaction to a debate would provide a powerful wave of momentum in the victor’s favor, boosting not only poll numbers but also donations. More importantly in this election, where voter turnout will be crucial to the Republican strategy, the base will be reenergized, catalyzing “get out the vote” efforts.

Romney has five weeks to overcome an eight-point deficit in Ohio, a state that is virtually a must win to secure victory in the Electoral College. It looks like this is going to be a strong booster shot for the governor’s campaign. In the coming days look for the polls to tighten in the swing states in the run-up to the vice-presidential debate in a week.