Undebatable: Presidential race now more interesting
Posted by James McPherson on October 4, 2012
Mitt Romney won the first 2012 presidential debate handily, as everyone from Michael Moore to the foreign press could see. I’m surprised that President Obama failed bring up “the 47 percent,” women’s issues, the auto industry or immigration, or to counter Romney’s many misstatements and exaggerations.
Still, I can’t say I’m shocked at the outcome. I doubt that George W. Bush is, either, considering his first debate as an incumbent–or that he would be, anyway, if he weren’t getting ready to visit Romney’s bankers in the Cayman Islands. First debates are good for challengers.
Remember, Obama hasn’t debated for four years. He speaks better when he has a teleprompter, or when can interact with (and feed off of) an audience, and the debate crowd had been muzzled. Jim Lehrer did an abysmal job as moderator. And despite all the talk by pundits before the debate about how good a debater he supposedly is, I’ve never seen it. Hillary Clinton beat him in their debates, and John McCain did more to lose the 2008 presidential debates than Obama did to win them. Besides, McCain had to debate with Bush and Sarah Palin strapped to his back.
Debate moments may matter to the media and political junkies, but probably no presidential debate has ever made a difference in the outcome. To repeat: Not one presidential debate has changed the outcome of an election. Despite all the recent talk about Ronald Reagan’s supposed “comeback” against Jimmy Carter, as researchers have pointed out, “No candidate who was leading in the polls six weeks before the election has lost the popular vote since Thomas Dewey in 1948.” And stats guru Nate Silver gave Obama an 86 percent chance of winning just before the debate.
Obama still leads in the states he needs to win, has a better ground game than Romney, and is better on the stump. He still has the natural advantage of any sitting president, in that he will be seen on the news every night and has the opportunity to do things that only a president can do. He’ll probably throw out the first pitch at a Nationals playoff game–and maybe an Orioles game, too. Obviously he should do more “presidential” stuff–meeting with world leaders, for example, rather than hanging out with the ladies of “The View.”
It’s still the president’s contest to lose–but ask Bush’s former baseball team, the Texas Rangers, if it’s possible to blow a big lead. Obama may have to wake up and study up for the next two debates. He shouldn’t take for granted that Americans are too intelligent to elect a guy with no meaningful foreign policy experience or who makes vague domestic promises that he won’t be able to keep. After all, that’s exactly what voters did in 2008. Just ask our current Secretary of State.
Same-day follow-up: Rachel Maddow had a fascinating piece tonight, demonstrating that of the seven times a sitting president has debated a challenger, presidents now have a sparkling record of 1-6. Even Ronald Reagan won as the challenger and then lost as president. In addition, Nate Silver actually boosted his calculation of Obama’s chance of presidential victory to 87 percent. James Downie of the Washington Post is probably correct when he writes, “Obama lost the first debate, but he will still win the election.” And Obama himself seemed cheerful and confident on the stump today.