Mitt’s meaningless victory

The former Massachusetts governor won the first presidential debate. Too bad it won't change the campaign

Topics: Democratic Party, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, Republican Party, The American Prospect, 2012 Elections, 2012 Presidential Debates,

Mitt's meaningless victory (Credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

The American Prospect For the last two weeks, I have argued—consistently—that the debates don’t matter for the outcome of the presidential election. And now that we’ve had the first debate, I still think that’s true.

Which is not to say that this wasn’t interesting. For the first time since he began running for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney looked comfortable. During his debate with President Obama, he took command, clearly explained his points of disagreement, and offered a little humanity with stories of the unemployed and suffering.

He even shook the Etch-a-Sketch; on everything from tax policy—he disavowed his plan to cut taxes across-the-board—to health care (where he praised his Massachusetts reform bill), Romney made an abrupt move to the center, and it was hugely effective. It’s no exaggeration to say that Romney gave one of the best performances of his political career.

President Obama, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well. He couldn’t complete a statement without pausing. When Romney spoke, he looked down. When given the chance to offer a sharp contrast to the Republican nominee—“How do you and Governor Romney differ on Social Security?”—he demurred. And despite Romney’s willingness to bend or disregard the facts, Obama had little to say about his opponents honesty, or lack thereof. Romney’s excellence in this debate was matched—pound for pound—by Obama’s failure.

For pundits, journalists, and commentators across the spectrum, this is clear evidence that the presidential race has become a toss-up again, providing fodder for endless analysis, and justifying their continued employment. “A week ago, people were saying this was over. We’ve got a horse race,” said David Gergen in a bit of post-debate analysis. On the other side of things, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews had a near-meltdown over Obama’s listless performance: “I don’t know what he was doing out there, he had his head down, he was enduring the debate rather than fighting it.” According to CNN’s instant polling, 67 percent of viewers say that Romney won the debate, compared to the lonely 25 percent who say that Obama had the advantage. Overall, viewers gave Romney a win on everything, from the economy and health care to taxes, the deficit, and views of government.



There’s no question that Romney crushed the president, who gave a poor performance. But the facts are clear: This won’t determine the outcome.

It’s worth looking back to the 2004 presidential debates. The unanimous opinion was that John Kerry punished George W. Bush. Whereas Bush was churlish, impatient, and aloof, Kerry was dynamic and aggressive. He came away from the debates with momentum and a boost in the polls.

Twenty-two days after the final debate, Bush won reelection with 50.7 percent of the vote.

Winning debates doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t do much to help either. At most, this debate will give Romney a bump in the polls. But even that’s an open question. Kerry’s gains came from winning Democratic voters back from Bush, and moving Democrats away from the undecided column. There was slack in the electorate, and that gave Kerry a little space to grow.

The same isn’t true this year. Obama is winning the vast majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, while Romney is doing the same for Republicans. There isn’t much across-the-aisle voting in this election, which means that Romney needs to win undecideds and break Obama’s coalition to make gains. To do that, he needs to offer a convincing argument to Democratic voters and, so far, his campaign hasn’t been able to clear that hurdle. Yes, the debate helped him look serious and presidential, but that’s never been his problem: Romney moves with an aura of competence. What he lacks is detail and conviction.

Put another way, Romney gave a great performance, but there was nothing in his rhetoric that would convince an Obama voter to switch sides. By next week, polling will catch up with events and we’ll have a sense of how voters reacted to the first presidential debate. My guess? The polls will show little or no change. To borrow from political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Weizen, “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.”

At the end of the month, odds are good that Obama will be where he was at the beginning of the month—ahead.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>