We all know that debate #2 was vitally important. Even before the debate season started, I have always used the Bush-Kerry 2004 debates as a baseline to understand this election. In my view, the first Bush-Kerry debate is the only one that I can truly say changed the trajectory of an election from what should have been a fairly comfortable Bush win, to a very narrow victory decided by about 150,000 votes in Ohio. After the first Obama-Romney debate, it seemed that this election was following that same pattern: a somewhat comfortable Obama margin had sharply narrowed and we were looking at a dog fight.
In order to win the election, the President had to perform better in debate #2. I thought that the President would be able to re-energize his supporters at a minimum with a more engaged performance, much like Bush did against Kerry in their second debate in 2004. Bush didn't win that debate, but he didn't clearly lose it either. It was enough to keep his base energized to turn out for him on election day.
The President had an opportunity to exceed Bush's performance because he had an opponent with glaring policy and character weaknesses that Kerry did not exhibit. What the President did from the opening bell last night was to hammer away at Romney's lack of honesty, lack of detail, while providing better, more substantive answers. He didn't let up and Obama defined Romney as an elitist, dishonest, cold-hearted plutocrat. Bush never could do that to Kerry. In that sense, I believe Obama exceeded Bush's performance and there is a good possibility that he will recover the lost ground he ceded after debate #1.
Looking to the final 3 weeks of the campaign, I would make the following observations:
- The remainder of this week (week of 10/14) is very short from a campaigning perspective. The candidates will be on the trail today and tomorrow, but will need to spend Friday-Sunday doing preparation for Monday's debate. That takes about 4-5 days out of the campaign.
- I expect debate #3 (foreign policy) to be another heated clash. If Obama maintains the same level of preparation as he did for debate #2, he should come away with a victory. Romney hurt himself on Benghazi in a very lasting way, and that hampers his task for debate #3. Obama displayed a lot of passion and righteous indignation on questions of national security and his role as CIC and Romney will have a tough time dealing with that. Romney will have to somehow turn the discussion to the fiscal cliff, defense cuts, debt, deficit and jobs, and Obama will have to be alert to not fixate on the specific question, but use the time to attack Romney and defend his own positions (much as he did in debate #2). The result will be pretty close in the snap polls, but as long as Obama gives a spirited performance, his supporters will be happy and remain energized.
- The final 2 weeks of the campaign present advantages for the President. I don't believe Romney will be able to overtake the President in states that Romney wasn't leading or within the MOE prior to debate #2. That means that Romney will likely lose Ohio, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Nevada and Iowa. Early voting in a few of these states suggest that Romney's road was already uphill prior to debate #2. I also think that Obama's strong performance will result in him gaining points in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Colorado. Keep in mind that in Virginia and Colorado, Obama was leading in an average of non-GOP polls taken in those states during Romney's best week. Therefore, after debate #2, Obama's margin in VA and CO might actually be closer to 4 points than it is to a tie.
That also means that these 4 states, 3 of which are in the South, will be contested through election day and Romney will have to spend vital resources to win them all. I doubt he can accomplish that. In short, we will be playing the last 3 weeks on turf that the GOP absolutely needs to win to marshal an electoral majority. Our base states look safe.
- The ground game of the Obama campaign plus the better ads and day to day management should also inure to the President's benefit. The Democrats have registration advantages in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia despite a large conservative Republican base of support. The Democrats have two Senate candidates in VA and FL who are running strong, which suggests high involvement of Democrats and Democratic leaning independents. These are persuadable voters who are more likely to vote for the President after last night's debate.
I think the President will win the election with over 300 electoral votes, exceeding Bush's performance in 2004. Last night's debate will be the primary reason why.