A current Pew poll (on a nearly worthless question) shows that Americans have slightly higher expectations for President Obama than for Mitt Romney in tonight's debate.
My theory: Unless tonight's result is an obvious knockout win for either candidate (which is very unlikely), it really doesn't matter, and neither does the next debate.
Here's the reason: The first debate made such an enormous impact on the electorate and subsequent polls not primarily because Romney "beat" Obama -- which he surely did. Instead it was because, separate from Obama, Romney showed himself to be a reasonable choice for president.
He came across as moderate (in temperament as much as in policy), practical, on top of details in a way that people expect CEOs to be, and caring about the issues facing the majority of Americans.
I want to reemphasize that these traits are not primarily important in comparison to whatever degree Barack Obama might or might not have similar characteristics.
Independent voters and "Reagan Democrats" are suffering from tremendous buyer's remorse after their support of Barack Hussein Obama. They want, and have for two years wanted, an alternative. They know that they don't want another four years of this.
Therefore, Romney's primary task is not to convince them that he is better than Obama. His task is to convince them that he is an acceptable choice for president.
All the television hyperventilating about who won and who lost is inside baseball navel-gazing by partisans on both sides. After all, the same Pew poll shows that 88 percent of Republicans who watched the VP debate thought Paul Ryan won, and 89 percent of Democrats thought Joe Biden won. (I thought it was a tie, but that if Biden hadn't acted so aggressively/bizarrely, Biden would have been the winner.)
However, and most importantly, independent voters thought, by a fairly wide 50 percent -39 percent margin, that Ryan won.
While it is likely that more independents lean conservative than liberal, I submit that the real message is that they saw as the winner the person they hoped would be the winner, because they very much want to replace this administration. They just want to have some comfort that they would replace it with a competent team.
As for why any independent would not prefer anyone, anything, a ham sandwich, to the Obama administration without asking further questions, I can't tell you for sure, but I have a couple of thoughts on that as well:
I suspect that especially among women, making a change requires somewhat more intellectual validation than sticking with what is already in place. Perhaps more importantly, making a change means getting people to admit that their prior vote was a mistake. They already know it subconsciously but need the additional comfort of knowing the other guy is someone they really can positively support, not just go to by default because of disappointment in Obama.
Again, none of these emotional needs which must be satisfied among swing voters really has anything to do with Obama. It is all about Romney. He needs to stay mostly positive, with the occasional sharp right jab to Obama's record. He needs to come across as the next president, not the debate winner.
In a sense, it barely matters that Barack Obama will be on the same stage except that Obama will work hard to damage Romney's ability to meet those voter's electoral-emotional needs.
To those who would say "if that were true, Romney would have been stronger earlier." The reason that'sincorrect is that the first debate was the first occasion for such a large number of Americans of all political stripes to see Mitt Romney being Mitt Romney, rather than being the fictional creature created by some Obama-favoring "reporter" or pundit or Obama campaign ad.
After the first debate, and again not because of a comparison with Obama, it became far more difficult to portray Mitt Romney as a baby-eating, middle class-hating liar, thus torpedoing the Obama team's favorite recent tactic (which already wasn't working very well.)
Tonight's debate therefore only really matters in the degree to which Mitt Romney can, through Obama's attacks probably reinforced by misleading questions from a liberal CNN "moderator," continue to show himself to be an acceptable (or even desirable) candidate for president. The voters who matter already know they don't really want the current officeholder.
The first debate broke the dam, allowing millions of Americans to see Mitt Romney as an acceptable choice. All Romney really needs to do tonight is keep Obama from rebuilding the dam.
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