The Romney Surge

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 9, 2012


The dreadful performance by President Obama in the first presidential debate last week has afforded Mitt Romney the opportunity to stay in the race for a couple of additional weeks. However, unless Romney changes his strategy and redefines his proposals to attract middle class voters, President Obama’s debate stumble will simply go down in history as a harmless anecdote.


Presidential debates are always about how candidates live up to the expectations. Leading up to the first debate, both candidates put their campaign teams to work on lowering expectations. The Obama camp argued that the president’s debate skills were rusty. The Romney camp developed a compelling story to respond to the claims that Romney has more recent experience debating. The Republicans argued that Obama is known to be a better debater and that the challenger only needs to prove that he can come across as presidential.


By any standard used to measure the debate, it was a resound victory for Romney. President Obama looked tired and unfocused. Romney was on top of his game.  The Republican candidate came into the debate with a complicated baggage. Some of his recent comments—including the infamous reference to the 47% of “dependent” Americans who do not pay taxes—put him a vulnerable position.  In addition, all polls show that Obama is more personable and likable than Romney, thus the debate was expected to end up favoring Obama.


Romney’s surprise debate victory has enlivened the Republican Party base. Though most polls have shown little change in electoral preferences after the debate, the general perception is that Romney is still in the game. Romney emerged out of the debate emotionally stronger.  He used the surge in the debate to try to jump start his weakening campaign. It is not clear that he had any success doing it, but at least he has achieved to key necessary objectives to remain competitive until the last day. His partisan base believes Romney can win. The low morale that had built up among Republicans is gone. Though they know it is an uphill battle, Republicans believe they still have a shoot at unseating President Obama.  The second objective is that the press has reversed its position that the race was a done deal. Most news organizations are again reporting on the election as if it were an open race.  That itself might help Romney succeed in jump-starting his campaign.


Obama was put on the defensive and received widespread criticism from many sympathizers and advocates.  Even the most ardent Obama supporters had to acknowledge that the President did a lousy job at the debate. The Obama campaign has admitted to the president’s mistakes and even President himself has taken on the offensive to denounce some of Romney’s claims and promises that went unanswered when the two men debated.  The Obama camp has made out if its way to point out that Romney won on style, not on the substance. They have gone on the attack to show that the allegations Romney made about Obama were not true and that the claims Romney made about his own plans were not accurate.  The Obama team argues that when the President does respond to Romney as he should have, things will go back to normal.


Naturally, it did not help Obama much that some 70 million people tuned in to watch the debate, the highest figure in any first presidential debate in two decades. Moreover, since there are only four weeks left in the campaign, Obama lost an invaluable opportunity draw differences between his own positions and Romney’s. With his unforced error, Obama has given renewed energy to a Republican candidate who could not on his own generate a favorable political momentum.


Unfortunately for Romney, his good performance in the debate has only had a marginal effect on opinion polls. Most battleground states continue to lean towards Obama. Romney only leads in one of the nine toss-up states, North Carolina.  Though some polls have shown Romney making inroads in Florida—which he could now win—he still needs to win in Ohio, where he continues to trail Obama.   Romney continues to have the same problem that made him weak to being with, he has alienated several voting blocs—Hispanics, African Americans, gays—and has failed to reassure middle class women and moderate voters.


The next two presidential debates—and the vice presidential debate this Thursday—have become more critical. Now, the expectations game favors Obama.  The president did so poorly in the first debate that any decent performance will be an improvement. For Romney, an equally strong performance as in the first debate is needed to transform this surge into an electoral lead. 


The odds are still in favor of an Obama victory than a Romney surprise. Romney should be more than pleased to still be competitive four weeks before the election. Yet, the Republican candidate will now have to live up to the expectations that have built up after his unquestionable victory against Obama in the first debate.