The biggest difference between discussing the outcome of a sporting event and a political debate is that the outcome of the former is, or at least ought to be, objectively determined by the score while the latter is, almost by definition, a subjective judgment. Nevertheless, though debates are often muddled affairs with no clear winners or losers, some are fairly clear-cut in their impact. Wednesday night’s set-to between President Obama and Mitt Romney was one such encounter. The left-wing talkers on MSNBC, the establishment types chattering on CNN and the conservatives on Fox News all agreed Romney won hands down. But the post-debate pushback from Democrats has centered not only on disingenuous “fact checking” but on the idea that the debate either didn’t matter much or that the Republican’s superiority was a superficial effect that dissipates on closer inspection. But in this case the liberal spinners have a problem: the audience.
It turns out ratings for this debate went through the roof. The Nielson ratings agency reports that 67.2 million Americans watched the debate on television at home. That’s the second highest audience for such a debate in history (number one was the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980). And that doesn’t count those who either watched it in airports, hotels, bars or other venues or the many millions who watched it on their computers, tablets or phones. In other words, the president picked the wrong night to mail in his performance.
That means those who wish to convince the country that what they saw shouldn’t impact their opinions or vote must deal with the fact that most people will trust the evidence of their own eyes and ears over someone else’s interpretation. As today’s first round of post-debate polls show, the debate had a clear impact on public opinion and no amount of carping from the liberal media is likely to alter that fact.
There seems to be general surprise not only about the size of the audience but also about the idea that people take these things seriously. But anyone who paid close attention to the contest for the Republican presidential nomination won by Romney ought to have remembered how important the innumerable debates conducted over the course of what seemed an interminable race turned out to be.
Indeed, what was so remarkable about the debates was not just the way they seemed to shape the campaign but how large and influential the audience for these confrontations was. For several months, each debate helped build the audience for the one that followed, as they became what the country quickly recognized as a popular and long-running political reality show. The debates will be chiefly remembered for giving Romney the training he needed to prepare for Obama. But they also gave Herman Cain the notoriety he needed to sustain his ill-fated candidacy far longer than his meager qualifications or grasp of the issues should have merited. They gave Newt Gingrich a couple of brief moments on the top of the heap, boosted Rick Santorum for a while and also conclusively sank the hopes of Rick Perry.
Perhaps if President Obama had been paying attention to all of this, he might have taken the Denver event seriously enough to thoroughly prepare for it. But having failed to do so and then flopped, he must now deal with the fact that a considerable portion of the voting population can now compare him to Romney as easily as those who watched the last Super Bowl were able to judge the talents of the New York Giants and New England Patriots.
The Democrats may curse the fates all they like, but they can no more convince most Americans that Romney is the monster they claimed him to be now than can the supporters of the Patriots beguile the public into believing their team won.
The only silver lining for the Democrats is that the hubbub about Romney and Obama will likely help, as was the case with the GOP series, build the audience for the subsequent debates. That will give Obama two more shots at Romney. But having now confounded the Democrats’ attempts to define him, the Republican has already gained a victory that cannot be retroactively rescinded.