On Debates and the Election: Could 90 Minutes Really Change Everything?

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I will see if I can get this done before the doors close on this US Airways flight out of San Diego and back to DC. [Update: No such luck. Doors were closed and electronic devices went off -- and I'm posting this seven hours after I wrote it, on arrival at National. Just imagine how much fresher all these insights would have seemed earlier today. On the other hand, a nonstop to DCA, which is nice.]

I've been away from the news for the past few days and have just now seen a lot of the "Obama on the ropes" narrative. Let's review where we stand:

  • It's right to think, as I have argued, that debates sometimes make a big difference, and this first one has.
  • Objectively, and predictably, Obama did a bad job in this debate. Really bad. And Romney performed at the high end of his range. For later: I have a theory about how someone who values the self-image of probity and goodness, as I think Romney does, can without a second's hesitation constantly reverse his positions and say things he knows aren't true. My theory is: what he is doing doesn't register as dishonest or "wrong." He couldn't do this so smoothly and with such assurance if he were suffering any inner qualms. More later.
  • Romney's supporters now feel better about him. Obama's feel worse.
  • Indeed the worst damage of the debate was not that Romney "beat" Obama but that the president's flat affect suggested that he himself had given up.

BUT does any of this mean that Obama will now lose -- or even should be considered the underdog? I don't think so, because of the following. None of them is "news" but for that very reason they may be getting overlooked:

  • The polls are indeed tightening, but many more of them show Obama ahead than behind. (Or at least as of six hours ago.)
  • We're about to have another debate. While I don't know whether Joe Biden or Paul Ryan will "win" the battle of the VPs, I am 100% certain that Biden will put up a better fight than Obama did.
  • Then we'll have two more presidential debates. Unless Obama is in fact being paid by the Kochs to throw the election, these should go better for him. The reasons include:
  • (a) Obama has seemed "on" in several post-debate speeches and rallies. This suggests that he still can do better.
  • (b) Romney has now gotten Obama's attention, by humiliating him. This suggests that, as one of the world's most competitive people, he will want to do better. Ta-Nehisi Coates argues something similar.
  • (c) The political media's iron law that "the story always changes" will give natural momentum to an "Obama comeback" theme.
  • (d) The next debate's format, the town hall, is better terrain for Obama than for Romney. The topics and pattern of discussion are less predictable, and meet-and-greet average-person small talk is not a Romney strength.
  • (e) The final debate is about foreign policy, where Obama knows the big picture and the fine points, and Romney knows neither. Don't take it from me, take it from Fred Kaplan and Conor Friedersdorf, in their eviscerations of Romney's lamentable foreign-policy address at VMI. If Obama's showing in last week's debate was the worst major-candidate debate performance in memory, Romney's speech was the worst of its kind in a very long time. Sample from Kaplan: "it was astonishing to watch Romney spin a daydream of himself as some latter-day George Marshall, bringing peace, prosperity, and hope to a chaotic world--this from a man who couldn't drop in on the London Olympics without alienating our closest ally and turning himself into a transcontinental laughingstock."

For nearly a year now, through wide fluctuations in political, international, and economic news, pro- and anti-Obama sentiment has been remarkably stable. Through that time -- whether the likely nominee seemed to be Rick Perry or Mitt Romney, whether war with Iran seemed imminent or remote, whether gas prices were going up or down, whatever else was going on -- it has looked like a close election with a small structural tilt in Obama's favor.

  • He is working against the handicaps of a stagnant economy, of an unmeasurable but real quotient of "fear of a black president," of the disappointed ex-supporters who stare at those faded Obama posters, and possibly of vote-suppression schemes.
  • But he has had the advantages of incumbency itself, of the Electoral College math that this time favors Democrats, of recently positive economic trends, of an often inept-seeming opposition candidate and and a seriously divided opposition party. Remember: everyone at the Democratic convention would gain from an Obama win. A lot of the people at the Republican convention thought they would gain from a Romney loss. None of this guaranteed the results, but it gave Obama the edge.

It still does. Nothing on this list has changed. Obama has hurt himself badly, and he has annoyed lots of his supporters by missing an opportunity to cement his advantage. He has reminded doubters that these debate encounters matter. But it would defy anything in recent political history if a 90-minute televised flop really trumped everything else .

It's a close race that either side could win. But the fundamentals still count.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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