He botched the debate despite his reputation as a great communicator. He gave long-winded answers that were hard to follow. He got lost in the weeds of economic and fiscal statistics . His speech was halting. He was defensive. He forgot to smile.
I’m talking about Ronald Reagan and the first debate of his 1984 re-election campaign.
Reagan, like every elected incumbent President before and after him (save for Bill Clinton in 1996), had a bad first debate. There are several possible reasons for this. The incumbent’s record is on trial and it’s always imperfect, inherently putting him on the defensive. There’s a reluctance to sacrifice gravitas and “punch down” at the challenger. Presidents have day jobs and can’t focus on debate prep.
Furthermore, an incumbent has never lost a lead because of a bad debate performance. Mere theatrics does not throw all past performance on the job, all economic reality, all national security reality, out the window. An incumbent has a record, and after four years people know it.
But Reagan’s bad debate temporarily jolted the campaign. The shaky performance sparked questions in the media about Reagan’s old age, though if you watch the above video it really isn’t that bad. (He does not appear to have Alzheimer’s yet.) Reagan just wasn’t as sharp as people had come to expect.
Yet the age questions proved to be a minor distraction. The polls tightened a bit, but Reagan was still way ahead. Nothing about Reagan’s performance altered the most important fact, the unemployment rate was headed downward, from 10.8% in 1982 to 7.2% by Election Day.
Will the same dynamic occur following President Obama’s low-wattage performance in his first debate?
My opinion is yes, but with one caveat.
People have to stop obsessing about the polls.
We’ve had a flood of polls in the immediate aftermath of the debate, and flood of coverage about those polls. We’ve had far less coverage about what was actually said in the debate, and whether it holds up to scrutiny.
The initial Romney bump in several polls suggests Romney was able to temporarily escape the perception of a socially awkward right-wing plutocrat. But as the Obama campaign has been furiously calling attention to what he said in the debate, the bump appears to be subsiding if you look closer.
Obama didn’t say anything that was unpopular with the public in the debate. If you don’t believe me, notice that the Romney campaign has not run any ads criticizing something that Obama said in the debate.
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has been slamming Romney on his lack of specifics for paying for his tax cuts (save for Big Bird) and his straight-up lie about keeping health insurance coverage for everyone with pre-existing conditions.
The counter-offensive appears to be working.
The daily Gallup tracking poll shows Obama polling just as well on Sunday and Monday as he did before the the debate. ABC News reported that its Thursday through Sunday poll show a bump on Thursday which “subsequently subsided.” A Public Policy Polling poll in Virginia had a similar ebbing.
But can the counter-offensive continue if everyone keeps obsessing about the polls?
The eye-popping Pew Poll, showing an implausible 9-point swing to Romney among registered voters and a 12-point swing among “likely” voters, is driving a media frenzy. And the fact that the Gallup tracking poll, long seen as employing a methodology that skews data towards Romney, now has suddenly instituted its own “likely” voter screen which turns an Obama lead into a Romney lead, will probably stoke even more mania — despite the fact that the screen says nothing about the debate’s impact and how the voters are processing the aftermath.
What all this data suggests to me is: if Romney is allowed to swap a right-wing persona for a moderate persona, and lie about his stated policy positions without challenge, he can blur the differences and make the race competitive.
When he’s getting called out on his Bush-style conservatism, as had been happening for the last several months, and attention can be paid again to the steadily improving economy, Obama keeps his lead.
Similarly, when Reagan was able to tie his opponent to his unpopular predecessor and keep the focus on an improving economy, his bad debate performance proved meaningless.
Reagan just didn’t have a million poll-obsessed bloggers and twitterers to get in his way.