President Barack Obama campaign has spent the past few months trying to define Mitt Romney, outspending the Republican presidential candidate’s campaign in September by double-digit margins in swing states. Obama has run almost three times as many television ads as Romney since April, when the former Massachusetts governor emerged as the Republican frontrunner.
In Florida, the largest battleground state, Obama outspent Romney by almost 50 percent in September, and in Colorado by some 40 percent, according to the New York Times. And the story was much the same in Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia.
The reason is obvious. No incumbent has ever been reelected with such high unemployment. The Obama campaign must paint Romney early on as a poor replacement in order to guarantee that disaffection with the state of the economy doesn’t translate into significant numbers of votes shifting to the opposition.
Thus, the Obama ads have depicted Romney as a heartless corporate raider detached from the economic woes experienced by ordinary Americans.
The spike in advertising in September corresponded to a bump for Obama in swing states over the past three weeks that left many conservatives wondering if Romney could still win the election.
Then, on Wednesday night, Romney hit back.
In his opening remarks in the first presidential debate in Denver, he launched a salvo of economic bad news at the president that Obama seemed to struggle to counter.
“Under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried,” Romney charged. “They’re just being crushed. Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300. This is a tax in and of itself. I’ll call it the economy tax. It’s been crushing. At the same time, gasoline prices have doubled under the president. Electric rates are up. Food prices are up. Health care costs have gone up by $2,500 a family. Middle-income families are being crushed.”
As topics of discussion ranged to job creation, overseas outsourcing, healthcare reform, and the role of federal and state governments, Romney stayed on the offensive, delivering effective arguments and noting his own record as governor of a state with 87% of the legislature hailing from the other party.
When Obama defended his administration’s signature healthcare reform, and noted that his reform “is essentially the identical model” as the reform enacted by Romney in Massachusetts, the challenger turned the argument into one of governance.
“First of all, I like the way we did it in Massachusetts,” he said. “I like the fact that in my state, we had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together. What you did instead was to push through a plan without a single Republican vote…. Right now, the CBO says up to 20 million people will lose their insurance as Obamacare goes into effect next year. And likewise, a study by McKinsey and Company of American businesses said 30 percent of them are anticipating dropping people from coverage.”
Obama’s response was a long explanation of the nature of expert panels for reducing the cost of healthcare.
The sense that Obama failed to respond to Romney’s energetic challenge was nearly universal Wednesday night.
A CBS News “instant poll” found that 46% of “uncommitted voters” who saw the debate felt that Romney won, while just 22% felt Obama had won.
A CNN poll found that 67% of debate watchers felt Romney had won.
“No presidential candidate has topped 60% in that question since it was first asked in 1984,” noted CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
The political magazine Politico concluded in a headline: “Not debatable: Obama stumbled.”
Even Obama’s most ardent supporters said that instead of attacking Romney with the campaign’s key messages, Obama was defensive, delivering “professorial” explanations of the details of his health care and tax policies.
Left-wing comedian Bill Maher, who donated $1 million to Obama’s reelection effort, told his 1.5 million followers on Twitter that “Romney won.”
As millions of Americans watched Wednesday night, The Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan summed up the feelings of many Democrats about what they saw:
“Look: you know how much I love the guy, and you know how much of a high information viewer I am, and I can see the logic of some of Obama’s meandering, weak, professorial arguments. But this was a disaster for the president for the key people he needs to reach, and his effete, wonkish lectures may have jolted a lot of independents into giving Romney a second look.
“Obama looked tired, even bored; he kept looking down; he had no crisp statements of passion or argument; he wasn’t there. He was entirely defensive, which may have been the strategy. But it was the wrong strategy. At the wrong moment.”
So what went awry for the president?
Obama failed to go on the offensive, many pundits and debate viewers opined on Twitter as the debate progressed.
There was no mention of Romney’s “47-percent” remark that suggested almost half of Americans don’t carry their share of the tax burden – though the figure includes the elderly, soldiers and other groups. Romney’s great personal wealth and his work at Bain Capital – key elements in Obama’s stump speeches on the campaign trail – were absent as well.
Obama even failed to take credit for his administration’s signature accomplishments, including the bailout of the American automotive industry in 2009 – a decision that Democrats believe likely saved hundreds of thousands of jobs in the swing state of Ohio – or repealing the US military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy that did not allow homosexual service members to be openly gay while in uniform.
Flush from his debate success, the Romney campaign is looking to close the spending gap with the Obama campaign for the last five weeks before Election Day. The campaign bought $1 million in ads in Iowa and $2 million in Nevada in recent days, according to the New York Times.
The Republicans are also likely to deploy significant resources from likeminded Super PACs that have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for political messaging outside the framework of the official campaigns.
But Wednesday’s debate, the first of three, was crucial precisely because it was not a television ad or a scripted campaign event. With no surrogates to deliver character attacks, and no background music or deep-voiced narrator to warn of impending doom should the other side win – moderator Jim Lehrer even made the audience promise not to cheer or boo during the debate, “so we may all concentrate on what the candidates have to say” – each candidate had only his voice and his thoughts at his disposal.
Whether or not Romney manages to claw his way back in the polls and win the race, the debate marks a turning point in campaign strategy, spending and rhetoric. Romney presented himself as a moderate, an expert, a worried CEO – precisely the sort of person you might call upon to rescue an ailing economy. And in front of an estimated 40 million American voters, Obama seemed surprisingly unprepared for the challenge.