The first presidential debate of 2012 is now behind us. The reviews suggest that many were surprised at how well Mitt Romney did and how weakly President Obama performed.
The Instant Polls conducted by CBS and CNN showed Romney as the big winner. In fact, CNN found that Romney emerged with the largest advantage from any debate since they began the instant debate poll three decades ago.
This leads to two questions. The first is: How much of a difference will it make?
As I noted last week, debates rarely have a major impact on a campaign, but a small shift could be decisive in a race as close as this one. Roughly 5 percent of all voters are still uncommitted to either candidate. Another 10 percent indicate they could change their minds. That’s more than enough to change the race from a slight Obama advantage to a slight Romney edge.
That’s especially true when the first debate focused on the key issue of Election 2012 — the U.S. economy. Coming into the debate, 43 percent of voters gave the president good or excellent marks for handling the economy, while 46 percent said he had done a poor job. Those aren’t great numbers, but the trend has been very good to Obama. The 43 percent who say he’s doing a good job is up 2 points from a week ago, 8 points from a month ago and 13 points from a year ago.
Romney’s comments in the debate were designed to have people rethink that assessment and reverse the trend. He said that the status quo “is not going to cut it” and talked of the need to find a “new path.” He added that “under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They’re just being crushed. Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300. This is a tax in and of itself. I’ll call it the economy tax. It’s been crushing.”
Obama seemed less interested in defending his track record, telling the national audience, “The question here tonight is not where we’ve been but where we’re going.”
It will take a week or so to really see what impact all of this has on the polls.
But it also leads to a second question. How will the president perform in the second debate? Incumbent presidents often struggle in the first debate and do better in the second. Ronald Reagan may be the greatest example of this.
After a very poor performance in the first debate of 1984, many wondered whether Reagan’s age had caught up with him. Walter Mondale and his team thought they had a chance. But the veteran performer turned it all around at the beginning of the second debate by pledging not to make his “opponent’s youth and inexperience an issue” in the campaign. Even Mondale laughed, although he had to know his chances of winning the election disappeared at that moment.
Does Obama have a comeback like that in him? We’ll find out on Oct. 16.
Until then, all we can say for sure is that Romney had a good first debate and the next four weeks should be a lot more interesting on the campaign trail.