The President Won the Debate but Not the Election Yet

In the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Long Island, President Obama did everything he didn’t do in the first debate in Denver: He was feisty and passionate and gave no ground to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s continued attacks.

The punditocracy—including conservatives Charles Krauthammer and Pat Buchanan—gave the president the edge. And a CNN-ORC scientific poll of debate watchers said the president won by 46% to 39%. (More on them later.) Fully 73% of them said the president topped their expectations.

Obama supporters like Chris Matthews on MSNBC and Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Beast were exultant, a 180-degree change from their despondency after the first debate. (Sullivan awarded the debate “game, set, and match” to the president.) If one of President Obama’s goals was to re-energize his base, he certainly succeeded.

But in a focus group of 35 undecided voters in Ohio overseen by Erin Burnett of CNN, Obama won 14-6, but 15 declared it a draw. And only seven participants said they had decided to vote for the president following the debate, while five said they would go for Romney—a much slimmer margin.

And 18 of the 35 thought Romney had a better vision for the country, whereas 17 picked the president. CNN’s tracking of their reaction showed real plunges in voter reaction when the candidates went negative—and there was a lot of that in this combative debate.

President Obama speaks at the second presidential debate at Hofstra University. Source: CNN.

That cut against the president in another focus group of undecided voters in Nevada convened by Republican pollster Frank Luntz on the Fox News Channel, several of whom claimed to have voted for President Obama in 2008. Most of these voters found the president negative and defensive and Romney “forceful, compassionate, presidential” and a plurality said this debate caused them to move to Romney. “This group really swung,” said Luntz, who said the results were “as significant as the first debate.” We’ll see.

But though the president scored well on immigration and gender equality (where he needs a boost now) and got rally-round-the-flag support for his passionate defense of his administration’s record on Libya, Romney continued to hammer away at President Obama’s record on the economy in a concise, almost clinical way.

His arguments here were convincing, if incomplete, and he was pretty good at distancing himself from the policies of George W. Bush. And he presented his jobs and tax plan, which I think is an empty mess, in a way that was persuasive to many voters, although this time the president challenged him a lot better.

In the CNN-ORC poll, debate watchers said Romney would better handle the economy by 58-40; debt by 50-36; health care by 49-46, and taxes by a similar amount. This poll overrepresented Republicans, but it’s something to watch.

Romney used his last minutes of the debate to reiterate his economic plan; again, President Obama didn’t really push his as forcefully. That was a missed opportunity as the debate moves to foreign policy next week. But though Romney lost this round on points, he remains strong on the economy in voters’ minds, and they are the only opinion that counts. That’s why this election is far from over.





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