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Evans

Romney Gets Debate Reprieve

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Oct 5, 2012

After Wednesday night’s debate, Republicans are jubilant and Democrats are disappointed. However, one debate does not change the course of the election and Romney must build upon his victory to have a chance to win.

Republicans desperately needed a strong performance from Romney. In spite of high, persistent unemployment, large deficits, and an unpopular health care law, Obama has led Romney in the polls all year. 

Moreover, the Democrats barrage of campaign ads attacking Romney as an aloof, heartless businessman turned Romney’s business success into a negative. These attacks, and the failure to respond, also allowed the Democratic narrative of Romney to take hold in the public’s mind.

Wednesday night was a needed jolt to Republicans, as many wished this Mitt Romney arrived sooner. Today, Republicans are more excited, soft Republican voters feel more comfortable with Romney, fundraising should increase, and nervous congressional candidates no longer think Romney will hurt their chances of victory.

However, Republicans should not start measuring the drapes for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The overall trajectory of the election still slightly favors Democrats. Obama has led Romney in head-to-head polls all year, Obama’s presidential approval is nearing the magic 50% mark, and Obama is in a stronger position in the swing states.

For Romney to win, several things must happen. First, Romney needs to see a bump in support in national polls but more specifically swing state polls.  Several experts have already moved Ohio, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin into the lean Democratic column. Romney needs to see these states move to the toss-up column or his ability to win the Electoral College becomes extremely difficult.

Second, Romney needs to see the number of undecided and persuadable voters either move to him or increase in number as they give Romney a second look.  The network focus groups all showed that undecided voters liked what they saw in Romney but few said they were definitely voting for him.

Therefore, Romney needs to sustain his momentum.  After Romney’s “no good, very bad” September, the debate has temporarily altered press coverage as Romney is being praised and Obama is on the defensive. Today, a jobs report comes out and if it shows the economy underperforming, as predicted, Obama will remain on the defensive. Next Thursday, Joe Biden, as the sitting Vice President, will be expected to do out-debate Paul Ryan. If Ryan does well, the momentum will continue until the second presidential debate.  At that point, President Obama will do much, much better and probably slow or reverse any momentum Romney has. So Romney needs the momentum to solidify undecided and persuadable voters behind him before the Obama counterattack.

Fourth, Romney must find a message that resonates with the public as both campaigns flood the airwaves in the final month. In particular, he must find a message that increases his favorability ratings and convinces voters that Romney is better prepared to fix the economy than Obama.

Democratic expectations of a landslide this election was never really realistic. The economy, alone, guaranteed a close election.  So we are probably back where we started – with a close election that either candidate can win. 

A revised version of this article appeared in the Oct. 5 edition of The Jackson Sun