By Robert Schlesinger |
President Barack Obama won the night because he turned up the heat on Mitt Romney and just kept punching until the final bell. Making for good theater, Obama played to the Democratic partisans who chose to watch a foreign policy face-off over Monday Night Football and National League Championship Series baseball.
Yet as hard as the president hit and as loud as his fans cheered, Romney not only remained standing, but he left the debate towering. Clearing the presidential bar, Romney was calm, cool, and collected. He talked about promoting peace by projecting strength. He showed that he was knowledgeable about terrorist hot spots around the globe, simmering tensions with other world powers, and the need for warm relations with America's allies.
In fact, it's because the two candidates are so similar on their preferred policies that Obama needed to swing as often as did. While working to create daylight and belittle his challenger, Obama was also trying to live up to an incumbent president's other title: "commander in chief."
At the end of the day, the debate was about leadership style, not foreign policy substance. And on this issue, the candidates are drawing even. Reviewing the evening's findings, CNN's Polling Director Keating Holland explained:
A majority of debate watchers [51-46] said that President Obama seemed to be the stronger leader…But on the question of likeability, the two candidates are essentially tied on a trait that has generally been an advantage for Obama. That's probably due to the fact that two-thirds of debate watchers felt that Obama spent more time than Mitt Romney on the attack.
The broader take-away from the debate is that it's unlikely to mean much a week from now. Aside from the fact that CNN's post-debate poll found that, "half of those questioned say that the debate did not affect how they would vote, with 25% saying they are more likely to vote for Romney and 24% saying they are more likely to cast a ballot for Obama," there is also the reality that the two candidates had different goals going into the night.
As Politico's Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin described:
Both campaigns are confident they can win. But their theory-of-the-case victory strategies couldn't be more different. A buoyant Team Romney sees itself driving into Obama territory on a tailwind of enthusiasm. Team Obama is relying on a three-state solution—winning Ohio, Wisconsin, and Nevada puts him over the top—and more 'Hit Mitt' messaging geared at driving Democrats to the polls, a hybrid of hope and the hammer.
Last night Obama played to his base. Romney played to the country. Both effectively executed their end-game strategies. There's still no telling who will win the final round on Election Day.
One thing, though: Theater won't be enough. Both sides need to bring out their horses and bayonets to capture and hold new territory on the campaign battleground.
About Lara Brown Assistant Professor of Political Science at Villanova University
Ford O'Connell Republican Strategist, Conservative Activist, and Political Analyst
Jamie Chandler Political Scientist at Hunter College
Brad Bannon President of Bannon Communications Research