More than 50 million people tuned in to the first presidential debate on Wednesday night. While the pundits and polls taken immediately afterwards indicated that Mitt Romney scored a major victory, few seem to feel it’s a game-changer at this point.
According to the polls, Barack Obama currently holds the lead as we move into the last month of the campaign. And though his performance in the Wednesday debate was widely seen as lackluster, I doubt that his true supporters are going to bolt because of that singular performance.
Industry Resource Page: Election 2012
However, the overall narrative that will be formed through the series of upcoming debates – two more presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate – could play a role in what most believe will be a very close election. And I think Romney has a much easier path than Obama. After an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars by Democrats in attack ads about Romney, the former Massachusetts governor’s negative ratings are very high. That image alone should continue to make it relatively easy for him to exceed expectations in the upcoming debates, as debate watchers realize he isn’t the robber baron he’s been portrayed as.
The American people already know Obama, and he continues to score extremely high in likability. Few expect Obama to perform as badly in the upcoming formats, which won’t be as free-wheeling as the first debate, and will feature more prepared rhetoric, which is Obama’s strength.
Certainly, the contrast is clear between the candidates, with Obama advancing a more expansive role of government, and Romney championing the role of individuals and the free market.
Another View: Lessons From The 2012 Political Campaign
No one expected Romney to dominate Wednesday night’s debate, but things are so polarized among the electorate that it will take a lot to shift the momentum. This race has very little to do with the individuals, and probably even less to do with their past record of either success or failure. The days of a large middle ground have evaporated, and elections in our two-party system are now about ideology and demographics.
The data show that if you’re a Protestant, you tend to vote Republican. If you’re Jewish, you lean Democrat. If you’re a schoolteacher, unionist, journalist, actor or government employee, you tend to identify with the Democrats. If you’re a small business owner, drive a pickup truck, hunt, or live in a rural environment, you’ll side with the Republicans.
Sure, there are exceptions, but what is striking is just how few there are. If you’re African-American or Hispanic, that alone provides me a 95% or 70% chance, respectively, of predicting your voting preference. Tell me where you live, your gender, race and career, and I stand a good chance of assessing how you will vote. Those who fall out of these patterns tend to be driven by single issues like the environment, abortion, or support of the military.
Politics have changed dramatically in this country; there are hardly any “Rockefeller” Republicans left; the liberal wing of the Republican Party has turned to the Democrats. Meanwhile, the blue-dog Democrats from the South are now Republicans. It’s not impossible to find a Republican at an environmental meeting, or a Democrat at a NRA or pro-life rally, but it’s not common.
Obama is the most ideologically driven president of modern times, which explains why he’s both loved and reviled. I think such ideological extremes will become the norm. Romney is possibly the last of the moderates with a chance of becoming president. Personally I’d prefer a candidate more conservative than Romney, but I have to wonder if someone who’s more focused on moving forward won’t be more effective than the purist who insists it’s his way or the highway.
The one main advantage that Romney has is what both diehard conservatives and liberals have always considered to be his fatal flaw – he’s pragmatic. He has a history of compromise, working across the aisle, and of being more focused on getting things done and moving forward than adhering to strict ideology or predetermined courses of action.
That isn’t the world we tend to operate in today, where strident partisanship demands absolute ideological purity. There’s been a lot of talk about this being an election where America is at a crossroads; that’s certainly true, as the paths presented by each party’s standard bearers is drastically different from the other.
I think we are witnessing how elections will be conducted in the future. While we’ll continue to see billions spent promoting individuals, the key change in the political environment is that elections will be won or lost at the primary level, as party designation will be the key locally, regionally and nationally. That means the focus will be on building coalitions with special groups and political parties. That equates to a major restructuring of our two-party system and how dogmatic they will be on the issues.