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Why the presidential election is volatile

Before the first Obama-Romney debate on 3 October, the consensus among pundits was that it was very unlikely to impact the election contest much. Historically, they noted, debates just do not move the needle much.

And yet, it appears that the first debate indeed has shifted the momentum of this year’s race significantly. Before the debate, Obama was up by 3.1 percentage points, according to Real Clear Politics’ average of polls. But after the debate – which all sides agree Obama lost badly – the two are tied.  In the “battleground” states Romney has either moved ahead or has closed the gap behind Obama.

The talk now is that Obama’s lackluster and listless performance was so exceptionally poor that it explains this shift in the polls. Perhaps surprisingly, Obama’s supporters themselves were among the most vocal in saying that Obama was a disaster. Some came out with excuses: Obama was out of practice; he wasn’t prepared for a different Romney that turned out; or (according to Al Gore) he was impacted by the high altitude of the Rocky Mountains of Denver.  Some blamed the moderator, Jim Lehrer. But most of all, Obama’s most ardent supporters, such as Andrew Sullivan, were angry at Obama for not preparing and letting Romney win (Sullivan asked "Did Obama just throw the entire election away?"). There was a real sense that these Obamaites felt personally betrayed.

It’s true that Obama looked tired and flat. But – as someone who is critical of Obama – I have to say it wasn’t as bad as his distraught supporters, and jubilant Republican opponents, make out (you can watch here).  And it wasn’t that different from most of his earlier presentations: the truth is that he is not a great orator. Yes, he has given memorable speeches: his breakout 2004 speech at the Democratic national convention, his 2008 Iowa caucus victory speech, his speech in Tucson following the shooting of representative Gabrielle Giffords in 2011. But beyond those, all fairly forgettable. And Obama’s dull performance at the first debate this year came after an equally lame Democratic convention speech.

The problem with the debate post-mortem is that has been focused on style. Obama advisers Stephanie Cutter and David Axelrod said that their boss lost on “style points”.  But that would mean that Romney has style – that would be a first. The real issue is that Obama’s exhausted demeanor was a physical manifestation of his party’s intellectual exhaustion. Given where the economy stands, Obama cannot run on his record, and he has not presented a clear mission for what he and the Democrats would do for the next four years.

The debate itself also exposed the Obama campaign’s negative and crude approach. All along, the campaign has portrayed Romney as a cardboard-cutout bad guy: a rich, tax-avoiding, rapacious capitalist. Then Romney shows up at the debate and appears half-human, and this Obama tactic collapses. Many are now giving Romney as second look.

Obama’s standing has also been damaged by how his campaign has responded to the debate. Obama himself went out on the stump, and having had time to think, came out with retorts to Romney’s arguments. I’m sorry, but that’s not how it works; the day after is too late. Obama’s delayed comeback was reminiscent of the George Costanza “jerk store” scene in Seinfeld (if you don’t know it, check it out here).

The other big issue raised by the Obama campaign in the wake of the debate was… Big Bird. On the night Romney said he loved Big Bird, but would cut funding for the Public Broadcasting Corporation, the maker of Sesame Street, and other state spending.  The Obama team flooded the country with TV ads, posters, placards and so on with images of Big Bird. Their thinking was so transparent: “Ah, the American people love Big Bird, let’s jump on this, we'll show them how mean Romney is.” But more people are likely to conclude: if this campaign is running on Big Bird, it has run out of Big Ideas.

But to really understand what’s going on, we need to step back and look beyond the debate and its immediate aftermath. Most of all, the reaction to the debate highlights the volatility in voters’ preferences. The experts before the debate were right: debates usually do not change election trajectories. But this is not a typical year. The volatility derives from the softness of support for either candidate, as many voters do not have strong attachments. Coming into this election, consider these developments:

  • Trust in American institutions, including political institutions and the presidency, has dropped precipitously over the past decade
  • People have a low opinion of politicians (only eight percent - eight percent! - approve of congress)
  • More Americans now declare themselves as independent, rather than affiliate with either the Democrats or Republicans

With these trends operating, it is not a surprise that many voters were skeptical as they entered the election season. And since the contest started, the candidates have not given them anything compelling that would encourge them to take strong stands. In particular, as the Washington Post points out, both Obama and Romney have failed to lay out specifics in terms of policy.

This softness in underlying support and volatility also means that Obama could readily recover. The election could hinge on a statement or gaffe. Maybe as soon as the next debate on Tuesday night.

The best thing Obama and Romney have going for them is each other. After months of bemoaning Romney’s campaign skills, Republicans are now overstating how well Romney performed in the debate.  Once-critical conservatives have now fallen in line, even as Romney appeared in the debate to embrace Romneycare (the father of Obamacare) and support regulation of the economy. Romney is just as empty as he ever was, and we still do not know what he plans to do. Obama supporters lend Romney more coherence than he deserves when they make him out as “extreme”. He is more confused and opportunistic than a principled extremist. Romney’s shortcomings still provide Obama with lines of attack over the next three weeks.

Before the debate Romney was widely recognized as a weak candidate; now more people see Obama as weak as well. With neither offering a clear policy, and neither generating strong support, neither will have mandate to lead, whoever wins.

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