Obama edges out Romney in second debate

Both sides are calling it for their candidate, but I’m sticking my neck out and calling this one for Obama – just.

This time, the debate was a ‘town-hall’ style debate, with a small audience of undecided voters asking questions from the floor. Although the moderator knows and chooses the questions to be asked, both candidates have no idea what they’ll be asked, helping to create a more exciting debate. It’s also a great opportunity for candidates to show how they can relate to the average voter; Bill Clinton’s excellent performance in this debate versus Bush Snr. and Perot in 1992 is often cited as a key moment in that campaign. With that in mind, Obama will be hoping to recapture the initiative, while Romney will want to keep his recent momentum. Both sides are also looking to target female voters tonight; Obama has seen his lead in this demographic narrow to a point or two recently, and Romney is seen to be weak here. So, how did they do?

Firstly, we were treated to a much livelier debate this time around. Romney took an aggressive stance throughout; by the second question (dealing with high gas prices), Romney was on his feet and squaring off against the President, telling him to “sit down…you’ll have your chance…” Although not audible at home, those in the room reported that this elicited an audible gasp of shock from the audience. Governor Romney also clashed with moderator Candy Crowley minutes later, claiming the rules of the debate meant it was now his turn to speak (Crowley correctly pointed out he was mistaken, but let him speak briefly). He also spent a significant proportion of his response time to a question about George Bush complaining about how he wasn’t getting his fair share rather than answering the question, and at one point started hectoring Obama, repeatedly demanding, “Have you looked at your pension?”

Obama responded to this with a throwaway comment “I don’t look at my pension – it’s not as big as yours, so it doesn’t take as long,” winning a peal of laughter from the audience. The President also chimed in with a supportive “You’re doing great!” as a questioner stumbled over a list of tax deductions. While his professorial style meant that Obama occasionally veered towards lecturing rather than talking, he was the only one who managed to win chuckles from the audience. He also demonstrated a flash of presidential steel when rebuking Romney for trying to make political capital out of the Benghazi attacks. On likeability, Obama still has the edge over his challenger, though Romney has made real strides in this area.

Secondly, both parties were guilty of veering off topic. Obama managed to turn a question about assault rifle bans into a discussion on class sizes, while Romney took any opportunity he could to throw in an anecdote about ordinary people that he’s met on the campaign trail; a tactic David Cameron also used back in 2010 to try and demonstrate his common touch. What the Romney team should be more concerned about is the re-emergence of gaff-prone Mitt. Viewers heard that getting married can prevent gun violence, his closing statement was rambling and contradictory, and, in a phrase that spawned its own meme within five minutes of its birth, talked about his “binders full of women.”

(If you’re coming to this cold, then that is probably bizarre enough to require an explanation. Romney was discussing how he went the extra mile to ensure his cabinet in Massachusetts had a good gender balance: “…we took a concerted effort to go out and find women…qualified to become members of our cabinet…and I brought us whole binders full of women…”)

Thirdly, both candidates all but accused each other of lying. It’s a reflection of the current level of political discourse in a polarised campaign, but we repeatedly saw both candidates stubbornly insisting their opponent was mistaken – on statements easily verifiable by any fact-checker. Crowley herself corrected Romney on when Obama referred to the Benghazi attacks as an ‘act of terror’ – it’s a matter of public record that this was 12th September, not two weeks later as the Governor claimed (and Republican commentators are furious that a moderator would intervene in such a way). While the nature of such a debate means that mistakes can be made, online fact-checkers were quick to show that Romney’s statements were consistently misleading or just plain wrong. For example, Romney said that jobs are down under Obama’s presidency – they’re actually up. He claimed Obama has doubled the deficit – again, not true (unless you use a figure that includes data from before Obama actually became president). If the debate becomes centred on which candidate is more credible, a cursory fact-check will very swiftly discredit the Governor.

Finally, we should look at the key policy areas. On the economy, Obama easily debunked Romney’s policies, pointing out the $1billion hole in his ‘five-point plan’, although Romney was able to score some good counter-points on weak US performance. Asking voters whether they feel as though their lives have improved here is a strong line for the Republicans to take. The President’s stated stance on immigration will appeal to voters in key states; while Romney enthusiastically advocated policies designed to force undocumented immigrants to the margins of society, thus encouraging them to ‘self-deport’, Obama talked about making it easier for people to come in legally, only focusing on deporting those who are involved in criminal activities. The Latino vote may prefer the Republican focus on the family, but Obama makes them feel welcome.

Obama also outperformed on gender equality, being able to point to the Lily Ledbetter Act, and talking about issues that women face with empathy, whilst highlighting Romney’s rather spotty record in this area. Romney actually changed his policy on contraception (again) mid-debate – he now believes every woman should have access to contraceptives – but his general policy here seems to be simply to boost the economy, with the rising tide lifting women out of poverty. On a positive note, the Governor did talk about how he implemented flexitime in Massachusetts (though largely overshadowed by his ‘binders full of women’ line).

I’d also like to point out that Romney all but threatened a trade war with China, pledging to label them a ‘currency manipulator’ on his first day in office – although he has a point here, it is worth noting that the Yuan has been rising for some time. It’s highly probable that China is gradually allowing it to appreciate towards a truer value as the global economy recovers. It’s also worth noting the dogs that didn’t bark: Romney scored an own goal on Benghazi, while Obama’s much-anticipated 47% line fell flat.

So, my conclusion? I feel that Romney has a credibility gap, and may well have come across as arrogant. Obama has made a strong case for not voting Romney, but the weak economic data makes it harder for him to sell himself positively to the voters. We may see a twitch in the polls, but with so few voters remaining uncommitted this close to polling day, I really don’t feel either candidate did enough to convert anybody, though Romney may have done just enough to alienate the Latino vote in key states like Florida, New Mexico, and Nevada – and that may well prove fatal.

(Full transcript available here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/wp/2012/10/16/full-transcript-of-the-second-presidential-debate/
Debate fact-check available here: http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2012/10/16/1025531/thinkprogress-liveblogs-the-second-presidential-debate/ )

One response to “Obama edges out Romney in second debate”

  1. Love that you’re calling it for Obama still; my own thoughts (http://goo.gl/ypqNe) would be along the same lines.

    It was make-or-break for Obama in terms of style and performance (I don’t think the Romney campaign has any of the detail needed for a Presidential campaign); he had to score at least a draw to remain politically alive against an onslaught of inevitable Republican criticism. He went in decisively and set the tone for the evening; giving battle after pitched battle. He very much reminded me of a particular former Tory Prime Minister during her pitched fight to remain party leader (‘I am still at the crease, though the bowling has been pretty hostile of late. And in case anyone doubted it, can I assure you there will be no ducking the bouncers, no stonewalling, no playing for time. The bowling’s going to get hit all round the ground. That is my style.’).

    I think you’re right absolutely that Romney has a credibility gap; even his base is beginning to look with concern at both some of the vacuous detail on particular policies and the flip-flops on others. The economic data is better than Obama is playing it; he is a net producer of jobs in his first term and he doesn’t play enough of the problems he inherited from the previous Bush administration. Although we saw some of that rising last night.

    Interesting thoughts – bring on round three!