Top Ten Stories of 2012 #9: The “Game Changer” That Wasn’t

Between now and New Year’s Eve, Colorado Pols is recapping the top ten stories in Colorado politics from the 2012 election year.

On Wednesday, October 3rd on the campus of the University of Denver, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney squared off against President Barack Obama in the first of three debates. Attended by an audience of DU students and a few politically connected non-students, it was a high profile moment for one of our state’s finest educational institutions.

As for President Obama, the consensus view is the Denver debate was not his finest hour.

Our live-blogger covering the event, as our readers know, didn’t think Obama had done all that badly, though we conceded at the time he “left a lot of points on the table and missed some opportunities to really clobber Romney.” It became clear in subsequent days, though, that the public overwhelmingly judged Obama the loser in this debate, appearing detached and even a bit annoyed with having to deal with an over-the-top fiery (and factually challenged) opponent. It has subsequently been acknowledged that Obama’s bookish and unengaging demeanor in the Denver debate was a deliberate strategy–one that is widely judged to have backfired.

In the 50-year history of televised presidential debates, only perhaps one or two are considered to have ultimately impacted the outcome of the election. The most frequently cited example is that of John F. Kennedy demolishing a sickly-looking Richard Nixon on live television in 1960. After Obama’s consensus-view loss to Romney in the first debate, Obama’s poll numbers indeed took a hit: but the fact is that Obama was in the lead prior to this debate, and he went on to win the election. By that simple standard, and despite the massive effort by Republicans to hype it into something more, the Denver debate was just a footnote. A debate performance only makes it into the history books when it relates to the candidate who ultimately won the election.

Does that mean there was no harm done, despite the fact that Obama ultimately prevailed in the election? Of course not, because in all probability there was some amount of electoral harm done–the loss of momentum following the Denver debate, albeit temporary, may well have cost Democrats incrementally down the ticket in other races around the country. Obama’s performance contributed to uncertainty among Democrats–as well as giddy hope among Republicans–that was in both cases unfounded. If the Obama campaign knew they would have more opportunities to take the fight to Romney in subsequent debates, it’s clear in retrospect that they misjudged just how much soft-pedaling they could get away with in Denver.

That said, the end result confirmed the fundamentals of this race, which the presidential debate at the University of Denver did little or nothing to alter.  

9 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. Serenitynow says:

    “may well have cost Democrats incrementally down the ticket in other races around the country.”

    I am not sure there is any evidence of this.  I also think that the debate was always overblown as a disaster for Obama.  I don’t think Obama did a good job but I think that the polls were always bound to tighten given the state of the economy and given Obama’s inflated poll numbers after the conventions.  I think just seeing Romney on the stage debating with Obama was enough to take away some of his softest support.

    If Obama had knocked the debate out of the park in Denver and slammed Romney at all of those available opportunities, would the end result of the election have been much different?  I doubt it.  I would guess that in the 2nd and 3rd debates Romney would have then benefited from lowered expectations and the media would have talked about how solid he was in those and the fundamentals of the race would have given us approximately the same result.

  2. harrydobyharrydoby says:

    So what if Obama had clobbered Romney in the Denver debate?

    The GOP were already buzzing that Romney was a dead duck.  Money Romney got would have probably gone down-ticket.  But the real story is that money wasn’t nearly the vote-influencer as we feared.  So I think it would have been a wash.

    Voters actually want to know where candidates stand, and will stand up for them.

    So, no Obama’s loss of that debate wasn’t a game changer, but neither did it hurt down-ticket Dems.  The GOP failed on the basics — connecting with their constituency on the issues that mattered (the message), and poor GOTV execution.

  3. JeffcoBlueJeffcoBlue says:

    I get what they were aiming at, but he should have mentioned at least a few of Romney’s worst items. Romney was on the ropes and Obama could have finished him without raising his voice once.

  4. DavidThi808DavidThi808 says:

    If Obama had done as bad in the remaining debates, then Romney could have well run and Denver would have been viewed as the first big step toward a loss. Obama turned it around on the subsequent debates and that’s why this was a blip.

  5. NeonNurseNeonNurse says:

    “may well have cost Democrats incrementally down the ticket in other races around the country.”

    Here in Prowers where I live, Obama could have done so well in the debate that Romney dropped over unconscious from his awesomeness, and he still wouldn’t have carried the county.

    In fact, no Dem won in Prowers County this time. We did have one really good candidate for County Commissioner who came very close. He’s a well liked guy who is on a number of water boards, which is super important to farmers and ranchers. But Obama was considered a scary scary bad man, and one of the other Dem candidates for county office…had flaws. (Said candidate is currently writing letters to the editor to make all us Dems look like complete f’n loons and ruin our party image for the next decade or so. sigh) So I think there was some reverse coat tail action going on.

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