Elections, a wise man once said, are like aircraft carriers; they don't turn on a dime, or as the case may be, a presidential debate. Which raises the question of how wise that man—me, in this space, nine days ago—is. It's been quite a week-and-a-half, hasn't it? If you went into a bunker just before the first Obama-Romney debate and came out early this week, you'd think the world had gone mad.
Democrats' predebate emotions ranged from serene to giddy but they are in a fulminating panic after watching a listless President Barack Obama play a weak second fiddle to a Mitt Romney whose performance had a theatrical virtuosity only matched by its shameless, mind-blowing mendacity.
"This race is now Romney's to lose," The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan wrote Monday in a blog post speculating about whether the president actually wants a second term in office. "Not just because Romney is a shameless liar and opportunist. But because Obama just essentially forfeited the election."
This Democratic despair has been driven by a series of polls showing a substantial Romney surge—by Tuesday he led Real Clear Politics's average of polls—though careful readers of the surveys observed that Romney benefited from timing, with the polls being weighted toward the initial flush of the reaction to the debate.
If anything, Republicans have made a more astounding reversal. Before the debates, conservatives were so displeased with polls showing Obama holding an apparently durable lead over Romney that one website popular on the right started literally rewriting poll results to fit its worldview; conservatives insisted that polls should be weighted according to a specific expected turnout of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—not a practice most reputable pollsters follow. Some prominent voices on the right suggested that, in fact, there was something more going on than bad polling practices. "They want you thinking the country's lost," Rush Limbaugh said. "They want you thinking your side's lost. They want you thinking it's over for what you believe."
But shake the debate Etch A Sketch and suddenly those polls don't look so bad. The vast pollster conspiracy has been replaced by a traditional belief in the credibility of polls that confirm what conservatives wanted to see all along: a Romney campaign on the move.
And that leads to the most astounding aspect of this through-the-political-looking-glass moment. Conservatives had grumbled about the competence of the Romney campaign operation and were already laying blame at the feet of moderate GOP squishes for foisting this hapless nonconservative upon them.
That was then. Now not only can the former governor do no wrong in conservative eyes but—this is the best part—the Romney they now lionize is the very same Massachusetts moderate-seeming Mitt whose coming they warned of from before the primaries. The Romney who won the debate talked down tax cuts, talked up regulations, and attacked Dodd-Frank for being insufficiently tough on big banks. This new Romney says he'll repeal Obamacare but keep the protections for people with pre-existing conditions. And this week Romney—who has already ticked the pro-choice and pro-life boxes in his political career—reinvented himself as an ambivalent pro-lifer, saying restricting abortion rights suddenly isn't on his agenda. (Romney spokespeople subsequently clarified that he won't do anything about pre-existing conditions and still wants to ban abortion, but the headlines focus on the flip-flop, not the subsequent walk-back.)
Where is the outrage from the right now that Moderate Mitt has materialized? There are three explanations: First, beating Obama trumps all else. Second, political moderation on the right is a moving target. Today's moderate Republicans have lurched to the right on issues like healthcare, global warming, and tax cuts, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein wrote this week, adding that "these days, if you're willing to admit that President Obama was probably born in the United States, that the U.S. Treasury probably shouldn't default on its debts, and that someone, somewhere, might occasionally have to pay taxes, then congratulations, you're a moderate Republican!"
And the third reason is that conservatives are neither as stupid nor as memory-enfeebled as the Romney campaign seems to think swing voters are. Conservatives haven't forgotten the pre-debate Mitt Romney, the self-described "severely conservative" pol.
So maybe the emerging conventional wisdom is accurate and Romney is as unbeatable post-debate as Obama was beforehand.
Or maybe conventional wisdom is too tactically focused and so prone to missing the big picture, an argument political scientists have been making for months or more. Middlebury College professor Matthew Dickinson, for example, noted this week that the roughly dozen political science forecast models have projected Obama taking a slight majority of the popular vote. "If the mean forecast model is correct, Obama will win by a far smaller margin than what the national tracking polls were saying for most of September," wrote Dickinson (a former professor of mine). Obama's September lead was overstated but by the same token the Romney lead that has Democrats so panicked is likely inflated as well.
Step back and the big picture—including the makeup of the electoral map and the relative resources each campaign has put into ground game organization—remains brighter for the president than the challenger.
- Read the U.S. News Debate: Who Won the Vice Presidential Debate?
- Read Peter Fenn: Has the Electoral College Outlived Its Usefulness?
- Read Clark Judge: Joe Biden Looked Like a Deranged Bully in the Debate