Romney rallies a flagging campaign

The first US presidential debate shifted the momentum toward Mitt Romney after a mostly disappointing campaign. To win he must exploit Obama's oratorical timidity.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney went some way toward closing the gap on Democratic incumbent Barack Obama’s lead during the first televised debate between the pair.

Last night (US time), 58 million people tuned in to watch the pair slug it out at the University of Denver via various cable channels. That number doesn’t include the millions watching on YouTube.

Indeed, while the audience in front of candidates were asked to hold their applause for the entire debate, social media was screaming.

"Tonight's debate was the most tweeted about event in US political history,” said Twitter. This correspondent isn’t sure whether to be exalted or depressed by that.

The consensus from the Twittersphere, the cable networks, the broadsheets and the blogs was resounding – Romney defeated Obama comfortably.

So what chance does Romney have of winning on November 6?

The punters (world’s best political judges) still broadly have Obama at $1.25 to win, while Romney is showing some support at $3.

The reason why Romney’s odds remain much longer is found in the polls and a little history of presidential debates.

Firstly though, this is a much-needed fillip for the GOP. Romney’s campaign was labouring after Clint Eastwood’s bizarre stand-up act at the GOP’s convention in Tampa, Florida, and haemorrhaging following the release of secret videotapes showing Romney disparaging about 47 per cent of the country at a private fundraising event.

Once the Romney tapes were released, his poll numbers deteriorated significantly. The GOP candidate went from having national popularity numbers within the margin of error and reachable deficits in a number of crucial swing states to being too far behind on either measure to be considered a real chance.

It’s widely expected that Romney will get a ‘bounce’ from the debate, but he’ll have to book a string of smaller victories to bridge the gap between now and election day.

The US media is currently awash with content with one universal message – Obama blew the debate by being too reserved.

Clearly there’s some truth to that. We expected Romney to be indicted for his ‘47 per cent’ comments. Obama didn’t mention them once.

The following morning, the Democratic candidate was at a different stage in Denver pumping the feistier rhetoric and pointed critiques that were apparently lacking the night before. Clearly that criticism stung, and a tougher Obama has emerged as a result of the soft debate performance. His campaign is also getting on the front foot, aiming a fresh attack ad at Romney.

But Obama has been understated for the entire campaign because he’s trying to avoid the perception that the president is somehow satisfied with his own efforts to aid the economic recovery. The tent pole moment for this fear is the ‘debate moment’.

These moments are hard to define. Perhaps the best way to sum it up is an instance that distils an existing suspicion about the target so effectively that they’re unable to meaningfully counter it later.

It should be emphasised these moments don’t change the result. Republican John McCain had one in his town hall debate with Obama in 2008; the election was already well lost. George W Bush completely capitulated to John Kerry in his first debate in 2004, and went on to win comfortably.

But there are two debate moments that stick out. Tellingly, they both spoke to an identical sense of unease in the American electorate that Obama is battling – ‘you haven’t worked hard enough to keep us working’.

One is Ronald Reagan’s famous "Are you better off?” question in 1980 that really helped crystallise the disappointment with Jimmy Carter’s administration. The second is Bill Clinton’s lesser-known "I know them” moment that really undid George H W Bush in 1992.

What both debate moments did, better than any campaign ad, was show the challenger to be more sensitive to the economic hardship of the electorate than the incumbent. While the impact of debate moments is always inflated in the immediate aftermath, the Reagan and Clinton chapters resonate today as elements that truly helped unseat Carter and Bush Snr.

The challenge for Obama during is to constantly defend his record, but not too strongly for fear of leaving undecided voters with the impression that his inner belief is one of self-satisfaction, that he’s done enough.

Why would Obama gift Romney such an opening to get his campaign ‘back on track’? Because campaigns are less like trains on a track than they are oil tankers in the Atlantic. It takes literally miles to stop them, start them up again and turn them around.

The University of California’s Samuel L Popkin explains the sentiment concisely in his book The Candidate, comparing Clinton’s 1992 re-election campaign to 2012, where, again, the incumbent seeks a second term in the midst of a bad economy.

"Several phrases and moments from the campaign became staples of political culture in the United States: Bill Clinton’s ‘I didn’t inhale’; Bush calling his opponents ‘Waffle Man and Ozone’; the president looking at his watch during a presidential debate as if he were anxious to get off the stage; and James Carville’s clear and concise credo, ‘the economy, stupid,’ which continues to be used in campaigns throughout the world.

"As memorable as each of these discrete phrases or events is, none of them swayed the outcome on their own. Bush didn’t lose the election – or even many votes – because he looked at his watch, or because Carville’s line raised the salience of the economy and lowered the salience of social issues. Bush lost because he was unwilling to plan ahead for an unavoidable budget showdown over taxes and entitlements. Without advance planning, he couldn’t look like he was jobs-oriented in the international arena, where he was most comfortable.”

The difference between Obama and Bush is that he did at least some "advance planning,” with the American Jobs Act (2011).

Granted, the legislation hit a brick wall in the form of a Republican Congress. But it was an unmistakable attempt to wrestle the electorate’s attention away from Obamacare and leave them with the impression that the president is at least trying to mend the economy.

As Popkin also explains, Bush Snr was no dud and came to the same realisation during his term, but it was too late. The voters were sufficiently sceptical about his concerns for the economy by the time he took the stage with Clinton, who exploited that window with some fancy footwork.

The harder Obama goes at Romney, the greater the gap between his confidence in his agenda and the viewer’s confidence in their future.

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