Barack Obama Won the Debate Because of Incumbent Advantage
Barack Obama won the third debate, but Mitt Romney won the debate season
October 23, 2012
President Barack Obama won the foreign policy debate last night in Boca Raton, Fla. He pressed the advantage of incumbency effectively—he knows precisely what went into every decision made over the last four years because he made them. Only Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta could've stood a chance.
But at the same time, Fox News's Chris Wallace had it right: If you knew nothing about American politics, and you tuned into last night's debate, Wallace said, you would have thought Mitt Romney was the incumbent protecting a lead and President Obama was a desperate challenger trying to score points any way possible.
Romney's primary goal was not so much to win as to pass the commander in chief test. He needed to not allow the president to portray him as a warmonger or international cowboy. He needed to present a sensible, coherent plan to keep America strong and safe, and he did.
On the only poll from last night that matters—whether the debate swayed undecided voters—Romney won. CNN's survey said 25 percent were more likely after the debate to vote for Romney, 24 percent for President Obama, and more than half were not moved in either direction.
Romney seemed confident and knowledgeable, and his closing argument—about everything but foreign policy—was strong. He was gracious and above the fray, as presidents must be. He agreed with President Obama on a number of points and even complimented the president's initiatives.
Yet, from the outset, it seemed President Obama thought he had to score a big debate victory. He launched a number of attacks attempting to establish Romney as a flip-flopper based on musty position papers—some even from Romney's 2008 campaign.
Romney responded, correctly in my view, "Attacking me is not an agenda," and kept the focus on Israel and how our weak economy compromises our ability to lead in the world. "Nowhere in the world," he finally said, "is America's influence greater today than it was four years ago."
In the end, the first debate—in Denver—was a game-changer. It put gale-force winds in the sails of the lagging Romney campaign. The other two were even—or close to it—slogs that moved few votes. The long, convivial meeting of the candidates and their families onstage after the event seemed to signal even they were in on the joke.
So, advantage President Obama last night; advantage Romney for the debate season as a whole. Will it matter November 6? It's unclear. But if you live in Ohio, let's just say you'll have a lot of chances to see the president over the next two weeks.