Well, just as I was getting settled into my theory that Mitt’s perceived “move to the center” was a pretty big strategic deal, along comes John Sides with at least one batch of data suggesting that Mitt’s been considered more “moderate” than Obama all along, and that the debate didn’t change ideological perceptions one bit.
There are some pretty obvious limitations to the data John cites. All the “ideological” perceptions are relative to those of respondents, which creates all kinds of tricky interpretive problems. In terms of the impact of the debate, positive perceptions of candidates are not necessarily translated immediately by voters into reasons for them, so the finding that ideological perceptions haven’t changed may be irrelevant. And so, too, may be the whole question of “changing perceptions.” Mitt is definitely singing a new tune rhetorically–without changing his actual policy positions–so it’s just as likely he’s reinforcing a valuable perception for relative moderation as that he’s creating it to begin with.
Romney’s overall positioning in the survey Sides cites does make you wonder if a bit more of the attention the Obama campaign paid to Romney’s personal shortcomings might have been better devoted to stronger ideological branding, which didn’t much begin in earnest until Romney chose Ryan as his running-mate. But what us political junkies call “ideology” is not always understood that way by regular voters. George W. Bush was not perceived as all that conservative ideologically. But non-conservative voters (and eventually a fair number of conservatives) sure didn’t like his policies, so tying Romney’s policies to Bush’s makes sense for Team Obama whether that makes him less of a “moderate” or not.
In any event, Romney’s self-presentation of his political philosophy and governing agenda during the debate sure was different from what he had presented during the primaries, when only conservatives were paying attention. In drawing much more attention to it now, Mitt’s opponents simply need to hammer in the point that Mitt will be a typical Republican, not someone who can transcend his (relatively unpopular) party, or act that differently from the last president from his (relatively unpopular) party. To conclude otherwise–that the debates really are all about “style points” and it doesn’t much matter what words come out of the candidates’ mouths–represents a level of cynicism I’m not quite ready to accept. Whatever you choose to call what viewers perceived about Mitt’s world-view and current intentions during the debate, it enabled him for a significant number of voters to move across the threshold of acceptability as an alternative to the president–to represent “safe change” from the status quo. The strategic imperative for Team Obama is to do whatever it takes to push him back across that threshold into the cold, while burnishing the president’s own personal and ideological attractiveness. Link him to Bush, link him to the GOP, link him to a point-of-view outside the mainstream, or simply undermine his credibility–these are all potentially effective tactics.