In every political race, there are two key elements: expectations and momentum. Both are at play in the United States in the wake of last week’s surprising debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Prior to the debate, two-thirds of Americans (according to pollsters) expected President Obama to make mincemeat of his Republican challenger. It didn’t happen. Obama not only lost the debate by any objective measure, more importantly he fell far short of the public’s expectations. Meanwhile, Romney, who had been widely regarded pre-debate as a rich but naïve klutz, vastly exceeded low expectations.
As a result, momentum shifted. Obama, who had been gaining strength until last week (ahead by four to six points in several polls), lost his momentum. Polls taken within 24 hours of the debate showed Romney had narrowed the gap to about two points. By yesterday, other polls were showing the two candidates in a dead heat.
There’s a new perception that the United States is in for an extremely close election, perhaps a cliff-hanger on Nov. 6. Real Clear Politics, a poll aggregator, puts Obama in the lead nationally, but by just one percentage point. Gallup tracking calls it a tie –47 per cent apiece – while Rasmussen Reports has Romney two points ahead, 49-47.
In the U.S. system, the winner is determined by Electoral College votes, awarded state-by-state, rather by than by national popular vote – hence the importance of the dozen or so “battleground” states. It is entirely possible to win the election while losing the popular vote.
There are 538 Electoral College votes. As of Saturday, an appropriately named poll aggregator called “270 to Win” was projecting 265 Electoral College votes for Obama to 191 for Romney, but 82 votes were deemed a “toss –up.”
Real Clear Politics, in a new projection yesterday, made it Obama: 251; Romney: 181; toss-up: 106.
Jeffrey Jones of the Gallup organization calculates that the debate caused a five percentage point shift in voting intention, from Obama to Romney. A movement of five points is rare in an American election; for it to be driven by a single campaign event – the debate – is remarkable.
Very little of this movement can be attributed to the content, such as it was, of the debate itself. Neither candidate impressed me or others who shared their impressions. I’d be surprised if very many viewers can remember anything significant that was said by either candidate (other, perhaps, than Romney’s bizarre invoking of “Big Bird”). There were no knockout punches, no killer lines, no takedowns of the sort that Brian Mulroney registered against John Turner over patronage (“You had an option, Sir”) in the 1984 Canadian federal election.
In fact, the Obama-Romney debate was so flat that it didn’t produce a single respectable sound bite for political commercials. One U.S. humour columnist reported that millions of Americans had fallen asleep from boredom just minutes into the debate.
What now? The election is Obama’s to lose – and if he performs as poorly as he did last week, he may manage to do that. The next debate is a town-hall format, where the audience questions the candidate. It’s a format that should suit Obama’s style better than last week’s sterile format where a moderator posed all the questions.
Obama needs to go on the attack, something he conspicuously failed to do last week. He’s already started, with a series of commercials attacking Romney’s fiscal plan and the damage the Democrats claim it would do to middle-class families.
Where will the American public set the bar for the rest of the campaign? Will voters’ expectations be as high for Obama and as low for Romney as they were for the first debate? Or will Obama benefit from reduced expectations? Will Romney have to struggle to meet higher expectations than he has encountered to date?
The answers will determine momentum, and the election will go the candidate who can generate it in the final weeks.