Separating the Debate Wheat From the Debate Chaff

As Ezra Klein explained this morning at Wonkblog, the Romney poll surge after last week’s debate is being excessively touted to “prove” that the political science consensus that debates usually don’t decide presidential elections is wrong. We don’t know whether the short-term “bounce” will prove to be a permanent “bump.” There’s nearly a month left in the campaign, not to mention two more presidential debates and tomorrow night’s Veep event. And ultimately, we won’t really know “what mattered” until we see the actual election results and compare this year’s data to those of the past. And so Ezra concludes:

[T]he last week has been an object lesson in why it’s worth paying attention to the evidence gathered by political scientists and tuning out some of the more excitable pundits. Pundits have every incentive to make sweeping pronouncements based off incomplete data. The work political scientists have done gives us some body of past evidence against which we can check those sweeping pronouncements. It’s too early to say how much this debate mattered, but the wild reaction it’s generated among political pundits has convinced me, more than ever, that political science matters.

That’s all sound advice. But Ezra mentions another, rarely mentioned, political science finding that’s especially worth remembering right now:

Typically…the change in the polls after the first debate is smaller than the change in the polls after all the debates. That might imply that Romney’s lead will grow rather than shrink.

And this leads back to the most strangely unexamined question in all the post-debate discussion: if a sizable group of voters did indeed, however temporarily, shift from the Obama or undecided columns to Romney, exactly why did they flip? Was it because of all the “style points” Romney racked up? Was it because viewers got really fascinated with Mitt’s “five-point plan” for jobs and growth? Or was it because voters who were lukewarm about Obama but wary of Romney and the GOP saw something different in the challenger?

I’d say all the bumps Mitt’s been getting in the polls on various comparisons with Obama suggest the last interpretation is most likely. And yes, that means Romney successfully sold the “moderate Mitt” mirage, which one might expect when half the Democrats watching were shouting ripostes to Romney’s self-characterization of his agenda that Obama didn’t offer or didn’t offer clearly.

Kevin Drum said last night that the real problem is that Obama and Biden will be fighting a lot of inbred voter prejudices if they come right and out call Romney and Ryan liars. But on the other hand, R&R are on a tightrope: they can’t really flip-flop a great deal from their actual record and actual agenda–conservatives still have them on a short leash–so a solid repetition of the many promises they’ve made, matched with clearly expressed disinctions of how they differ from what the administration is promising to do–should, over time, erode the “New Romney” pretty effectively.

It won’t be easy, but Team Obama really doesn’t have much of a choice. If Romney emerges from the debates as Moderate Mitt, this nice earnest man who loves working with Democrats, isn’t interested in divisive social issues, and has a policy agenda that sounds fairly reasonable, then the favorable impression he made in Debate #1 could really turn into the perceived candidate on the ballot on November 6. In periods of public unhappiness, Safe Change is always the politically winning message.

Besides, if Democrats can’t mine the vast record of extremism compiled by the GOP and its ticket over the last two years, and show that it’s a more shocking and uncompromising version of what the party stood for prior to 2008, then they really can’t expect to win. So they should place a lot less emphasis going forward on style points and “energy levels” and all the other superficial jazz the pundits love so much and concentrate on what is actually endangering Obama’s re-election (other than deeply ingrained perceptions of his performance): the repositioning of Romney and Ryan as thoughtful leaders who just want to fix the economy and “reform” the more excessive features of government. If these birds get away with that, it’s going to take one hell of a GOTV effort to get the incumbents over the hump.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.