The post-debate polls taken last night seemed to more or less line up with the conventional wisdom forming on social media: President Obama won a narrow victory over Mitt Romney, helped late by escaping the Libya question—thought to be his Achilles’ heel—when Romney dropped the ball.
But that Libya exchange—in which moderator Candy Crowley intervened on Obama’s behalf and only afterwards seemed to realize that she had been wrong on the facts—also revealed the flip side of Romney’s lack of focus on Benghazi: his fluency and preparation for questions on the economy, and Romney’s continuing bet that the economy will overshadow the other issues in voters’ minds. Polls back this up, and the post-debate polls seemed to as well. While both the CNN and CBS polls gave Obama a hard-fought win on points, respondents to both polls gave Romney the win on the economy by wide margins. CBS reports:
Moments following the debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., 37 percent of voters polled said the president won, 30 percent awarded the victory to Romney, and 33 percent called it a tie. After some particularly animated exchanges between the two candidates, 55 percent of voters said Mr. Obama gave direct answers, but 49 percent also said that about Romney.
As for who would do a better job of handling the economy, the president made some headway on closing that gap. Before the debate, 71 percent said they believed Romney would, while only 27 percent said they thought Obama would; after the debate, 34 percent said the president would better handle the economy, with 65 percent saying Romney would.
And here’s CNN’s write-up of its in-house poll:
According to the survey, Obama had a 47%-41% edge on which candidate was more likeable. But on some key issues, Romney came out on top, including an 18-point lead on the economy.
“Mitt Romney was seen as better able to handle the economy, taxes, and the budget deficit among the debate audience, but it seems that issues were trumped, or at least blunted, by intangibles, including the expectations game,” says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
Obama’s victory on the “intangibles,” such as expectations and demeanor, should not be dismissed. Those are often what people remember most about debates. Additionally, a major goal for Obama was to fire up the base. They were despondent after the first presidential debate because of the old adage about parties: when the host no longer appears to be having fun, it’s time to go. But if Obama was able to inject some enthusiasm into his party faithful last night, he’ll take it.
Yet it must be acknowledged that in the voting booth, it’s probably a safer bet that intangibles won’t drown out issues. Romney has raised his favorability ratings and made himself seem judicious and presidential, so voters will probably consider this election as one between two plausible presidents. In such a case, it really does come down to issues.
Should Obama be concerned that he got flattened on the economy even in a debate in which he eked out a narrow victory? If the electorate thinks Obama is marginally more likable than Romney, but wildly inferior to Romney on the issue that determines most presidential elections and is expected to determine this one as well, how would such voters cast their ballots?
Additionally, the CNN pollster says Obama won last night in part by beating expectations. That amounts to: The president wasn’t nearly as terrible as he has been or as awful as voters expected him to be. That’s not a ringing vote of confidence; it’s a condescending pat on the shoulder.
CNN’s pollster also says Romney was better on taxes—there goes one of the pillars of Obama’s yearlong attack on Romney. Obama ran on cutting the deficit—he called George W. Bush “unpatriotic” for running up deficits that Obama is only rapidly adding to—and voters give Romney the edge there too. Obama hopes to gain some momentum after last night, but a campaign betting on a minor lead on “intangibles” suggests a campaign still spinning its wheels.