Thursday, October 4, 2012

The real question is: how did last night's debate affect undecided voters?

What came to mind last night after I watched all the pundits piling on about how Romney obviously won the debate was the equally tepid response from the same crowd about the President's speech at the Democratic Convention. I remember loving the content but feeling like - especially following Michelle and Bill Clinton - it lacked some of the lofty heights we had come to expect from him.

Then I read this by Howard Kurtz.
While the pundits are generally calling the president’s Thursday night address mediocre, Obama and his advisers had taken great pains to avoid soaring rhetoric that might have been derided as empty.

Indeed, they extensively tested the president’s speech in dial groups, a type of focus group where voters twist dials to register approval or disapproval of specific passages, and say it tested off the charts. The reaction, they say, was more positive than to Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech in Denver.

In short, the president deliberately dialed it down, stopping well short of the altitudes he is capable of reaching. Perhaps that will prove to be a mistake, but the decision to go with a less rousing approach was carefully considered.

The campaign’s primary goal at the Democratic convention was to provide a concrete sense of what Obama would do in a second term. That was what independent voters wanted, according to the research, and that was the focus in Charlotte.
So my first question last night was to wonder whether or not perhaps the Obama campaign knew exactly what they were doing. After about 5 years of watching this President and his team, I've learned to ask that question. Over and over and over again they have certainly proven that they know more than I do about how to win elections. But they've also proved themselves better at that than any of these pundits who CONSTANTLY get it wrong when assessing President Obama.

Then this morning I read a summary from a Priority USA focus group of undecided voters.
Six in 10 respondents gave President Obama favorable ratings for his overall performance in the debate, compared with just one in seven who did so for Romney.

The starkest difference between the two candidates was in their likeability. Eight in 10 respondents gave President Obama high marks for coming across as likeable and down to earth, while very few felt that way about Governor Romney. The President came out with a distinct advantage over Romney on the important trait, “caring about people,” and respondents were much more likely to give Obama credit for being honest and truthful in discussing the issues.
Things get even more interesting when you look at how these voters reacted to discussions on specific issues. Most of the pundits are criticizing President Obama for not going on offense and attacking Romney enough. And yet for the undecided voters in this focus group, they were the least impressed with the President's response to Romney about his tax plan - the first issue that came up and the main one where Obama engaged in a direct challenge. In contrast, they favored Obama's approach to the economy, health care, dealing with the deficit, and energy.

Both pundits and partisans relish the idea of attack politics. That's what they want to see and that's how they judge the debates. It just might be that the Obama campaign is smart enough to know that's not the audience they're playing to at this stage. Romney needs to win over almost 100% of the undecideds in order to have a prayer of competing in this election. Obama may have shut down that possibility last night.


  1. The snap poll results make it clear that the viewing public judged Romney the winner. I'm not sure how much it means, though. Romney lied so much that he gave Obama a lot of material for future lies-vs.-facts ads. There are two more debates coming up, and Obama and his team will learn from this one.

    Even if the undecideds swing towards Romney for a while, in the immediate aftermath of the debate, it probably won't last. Things like the 47% issue are still out there and still effective.

    1. I'd suggest that the snap polls didn't capture much of the undecided vote. As we all know, its a VERY small portion of the electorate this time around. Those who already had their minds made up were looking for attacks on the other side. I think its pretty obvious that undecided voters were looking for something else.

    2. Infidel753

      6 in 10 favored President Obama.
      1 in 7 favored Romney.

      Note, these were the undecided voters.

    3. Like this CNN poll of old white southerners?

  2. Thank you, Smartypants. I was wondering why the President didn't shut Mitt down last night. I suspect that will change on October 16th. Besides, I suspect Joe Biden might be the more aggressive one. Watch. He's going to make Ryan look like the simple minded idiot he really is.

  3. OFA has been watching Mitt for 6+ years and they have been preparing for him for 4. Obama knows his strengths and weaknesses and has stated very clearly that he is a better counter-puncher. I think OFA is looking at the debates as a set, again the long view while Mitt true to form is looking for the next media cycle. That punch is coming and it will be well-timed.

    What struck me while cruising the internet this morning was the theme that Obama lost the debate and Mitt is a liar. Think about that...liar. That's a core value, honesty. OFA will crush him with his lying.

  4. The Sky is not falling. Chicken Little does not roost here. Thanks, Ms.Smartypants. for your Blog. Thanks, Al G. for that valuable lesson 4 years ago. I've been an active volunteer with OFA for 5 years. We have worked on Voter Reg. for almost a year, recently delivering over 9K in one month to local Boards of Elections. The beauty of the work with President Obama, via OFA, is this: Voter Reg. is happening all over the country. GOTV is next. Keeping my eyes Forward.

    1. Thank you Lorie!

      The pundits are so fixated on their own little world that - just like 4 years ago - they're completely missing the story.

    2. Thanks Lorie for reminding folks that GOTV matters most, not the 'debates' I still see folks on public transportation, libraries registering folks to vote, asking if their info needs to be updated, etc. This is the REAL work of organizing, not the stagecraft of the 'debates' that too many are over focused on.


  5. The President plainly phoned it in last night. But so what? Who hasn't at their job from time to time? Maybe he was occupied with NATO stuff too much yesterday, or maybe he just wanted to be able to go out to a quiet dinner with his wife instead. Doesn't matter, he's the President. He's the known quantity. The bar was low.

    The only important question is: Who does Romney convince to switch votes? He's down. He needs to convince. Who does he convince? He lied comprehensively and totally for 90 minutes, like the good charlatan snake-oil peddler he spent his whole business career working to be. Good for him. I'm not discounting his victory last night, on one level. The media were killing him. His own side was killing him. People were taking pity on his campaign. It was "the worst managed campaign of all time." He put in the best debate performance by any Republican candidate in 20 years, and he's gonna get the pundits off his back for now (until his next bout of self-sabotage).

    But who among the public sees him and decides to change their vote? Who did he convince to vote for him? He may have won the expectations game, but he will still lose this election by a margin greater-or-equal to 2008.

  6. I will preface this by saying I didn't watch the "debate." I imagine that Obama, about whom many have written for some time that debates are his weak suit, simply thinks that "the debates" are not debates in any real sense and represent our political-media culture at their most shallow, because not only are they a charade but they are a charade that purports to follow in the footsteps of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which were substantial and from a very different time. I agree with him, if he thinks this.

    It's a mistake to take a very talented person like the president and assume that everything he does is perfectly intentional and all part of a bigger plan. Obama can be off and also while it's pretty clear the broader strategy is sound--make it a "choice" election rather than a referendum--it is entirely possible for him to make a tactical error.

    The key thing I read as I've said before is that the O campaign did some focus grouping on undecideds with his convention speech--widely seen as "not so good"--and found that they loved it. They found that they did not want an Obama who skewers his opponent, spits on in and then dances on his grave. All positive, nothing threatening.

    Obviously--maybe not, but I'm not the first to observe this--this is because he's making an effort to appeal to older white voters who have, very likely, a ton of unexamined discomfort with Black upward mobility, which they fear, unconsciously and incorrectly, means white downward mobility. He cannot be seen as "aggressive," or he loses more than he gains.

    We don't know this. Maybe the plan was to throw the knockout punch in the first round. That would be uncharacteristic, though. I would be very interested to know and assume we will after the election, the extent to which the plan was to lay back in this first round. It would be characteristic. It is entirely possible as well that that was the plan and Obama didn't execute it as well as possible.

    1. Bill: "It would be characteristic. It is entirely possible as well that that was the plan and Obama didn't execute it as well as possible."

      Absolutely. PBO's slow (plodding) delivery and incessant use of long vowel fillers ("aaah...") between clauses are pretty much cliche's now - every competent impressionist can reproduce them. I'm sure President Obama and his team would've preferred a smoother delivery from him.

      But I think that was the only real failure in Obama's execution, and that otherwise he probably followed the plan absolutely faithfully. (POTUS' strategic discipline is also a cliche.) And it really was a much safer performance failure than delivering polished responses might've been, given the danger of coming off too "pat" and making it look like two facile liars were on the debate stage instead of just the dude in the red tie.

      But I think the real strength of the President's whole approach to public perception is that "long game" we keep talking about. He really doesn't seem to mind "losing" a news cycle, if he can do it while reinforcing the particular perceptions he's been setting up.

      To illustrate this, and as someone else mentioned above (or maybe on a different venue; I've been surfing a lot this morning), the two things pundits are emphasizing post-debate are that a) POTUS didn't exploit any of the many rhetorical openings Romney provided, and b) Romney was aggressive and energetic and *much more centrist* in his policy statements than he's been throughout the campaign. So public perceptions on both men continue to be that POTUS is accomodating and thoughtful and Romney is an insincere political chameleon. Where's the downside?

    2. SP, I almost want to apologize to you because in my rush to bloviate this morning I didn't read for detail, and you referenced the very piece that I referenced in my comment. Your game is, as ever, on.

      Tactical errors are only errors if they lead to strategic problems. Despite efforts on the right to paint Obama as incompetent, it just doesn't fly with most people because of the obvious evidence to the contrary. Nobody is going to think that after these four years Romney finally revealed Obama as an empty suit, except people who already thought for whatever reason that he was. This doesn't negate the possibility of a weak performance on Obama's part. Christ, I fuck up all the time, but it doesn't mean I'm fucking up.

    3. What I found entertaining about the pundit bloviating last night was to hear them try to figure out why Obama fucked up. It all revealed how much they were projecting and how little they've actually been paying attention.

      Part of my reason for writing this today was to challenge the first notion that he "fucked up." As you know by now, I really really hate conventional wisdom.

      But there is the possibility that he fucked up. Who knows? When I went there I thought about how clear it is that Romney represents everything that Obama finds distasteful. And there he was - without even a debate moderator as a buffer. It might be that he had a hard time getting his energy up over the disdain he was feeling.

      The next debate will be a town hall format. That one will definitely play to his strength and Romney's weakness.

    4. Well, something about Obama that strikes me is that while he seems to have a genuinely cool temperament he is very far from unemotional. Little cues make me think that he doesn't suffer fools gladly but that he's learned that he is not in a position to brutalize idiots in public, both as a Black man and as someone not born into privilege. We know he doesn't care for Romney, and not only is there the matter of principle involved, we know he has had personal experience with Romney's type since he first enrolled (an ongoing theme in my comments, I know) in prep school.

      I could easily be reading in the resentment I felt from junior high through college at seeing capable but lackluster students from extraordinarily wealth go through school and get set up for life acting as if they'd earned it individually. I have a lot of anger in me remaining. I guess I'm trying to say that we have read that Obama has a disdain for Romney that is not at all how he felt about McCain, and that he probably was holding that with him onstage last night.

      Me, I would have blown the affair up spectacularly. You would have called me a shooting star.

    5. The President didn't screw up. He won his metagame. Romney won his. There's no objective rules and scores to a debate, both sides can win on different measures.

      Trust. Responsibility. Fairness. Vision. The core of the President's message was upheld last night. He didn't lose any ground on message. It wasn't a great slate of questions, there's only so much that can be done with them. Taxes and entitlements are a slog. And easy prey to fake napkin math.

      You can try to chase down each rabbit, or just phone it in and let Romney's words do the talking for him. Mitt Romney isn't the kind of guy who can sell unpopular positions through force of personality. His tax positions, his spending positions, his balance and ratio positions were unpopular before the debate, and they will be unpopular after the debate. He's selling plutocracy and economic snake-oil.

      It's easier to see Romney's meta-win, because his campaign was hanging by a thread, and he needed to restore some shred of viability with the press and the public. He bought himself time, but he's still dreadfully underwater. And his policies will drown him.

      Trust. Responsibility. Fairness. Vision for the future. They're all intact for the President. He'll get a more amenable question set in the town hall. He'll be able to speak more directly to minorities and women and draw stark, ideological contrasts on more than dollars and cents. It's all good. Then he'll probably phone in the last debate as well, since the race will be effectively over. Debates aren't a cornerstone of his path to reelection. They're just a professional obligation. Anyone looking to see a "knockout blow" in such a format will be disappointed. The big punches have already landed through paid media.

    6. Hey, Anonymous, please use some identifier, because this is an extremely intelligent comment and I would want to pay attention to you in the future and hear what else you have to say.

  7. @Anonymous - "The President plainly phoned it in last night. But so what? Who hasn't at their job from time to time?" Well, you see, he is the PRESIDENT OF THE FREAKING UNITED STATES OF AMERICA! No, I do not expect him to "phone it in" EVER! If Mitt Romney was telling lies up there, then why didn't President Obama call him out on those lies? Because he doesn't know the facts, he doesn't have enough information to think on his feet. That is why.

    1. The President did not "phone it in" last night. You start with a mistaken assumption and go downhill from there.

    2. Oh look, a right-wing troll calling the President dumb. Something, something, teleprompter.

      Congratulations, Smartypants, your blog has finally hit the big time.

    3. Doesn't know the facts? Can't think on his feet?

      Try again.

      Personally, the only bumber sticker moment I've been able to find is that Romney is going to fire Big Bird.

  8. One of the key things I keep seeing in the snap polls and reactions is that Mitt was seen as a liar. While there may be a short-term swing towards Mitt, the "liar" label is one that's going to keep sticking.