First thoughts on the first debate

Twenty minutes into this event I thought the candidates had managed to lose at least half the audience.  A snooze fest cuts both ways, though.

This is just the first of three rounds between these guys, and it is the round the incumbent generally loses.  He gives up ground simply by appearing on the same stage alongside the challenger.  So if you are going to lose a debate, this is the one.

The next round employs the uninformative town hall style and usually has the smallest of the three audiences.  That format militates against the candidates confronting each other directly.  Instead they are forced to respond to the citizen questioners which rewards politeness.

The third and usually most heavily viewed encounter will this year supposedly focus on foreign policy. Closing with that subject benefits the President.  I bet Obama’s campaign staff saw getting their opponents to agree to this order of topics as a major tactical victory.  Despite its official topic, though, I see the candidates turning round three into a much more wide-ranging and possibly more tendentious event.  Even so two full weeks will still remain before Election Day which blunts any effects even this debate might have.

In the NBC/WSJ poll I cited earlier, the candidates have essentially identical profiles in terms of strength of support.  Eighty percent of each candidate’s voters say they will “definitely” choose their man.  The remaining 20% is split equally between those who say they will “probably” vote for their chosen candidate and ones who say they are “just leaning.” Most of the viewers tonight were in those 80% categories and will not be swayed by what they watched.  A few of the small number of wavering supporters and undecideds may move in Romney’s direction after this debate, but they could easily swing back to Obama by the time the campaign draws to a close.

So while I would agree with Ezra Klein that Romney won this round, I also think that Obama’s strategy may have been to “lose the battle but win the war.”  I would not be surprised to see the President’s average lead in the polls shrink a bit further in the days ahead.  What would be very disturbing given the trends in the campaign so far would be for Romney to take the lead in most polls and hold it through the second debate.  Given that the President has lead in the vast majority of polls taken since June, to suddenly lose that advantage now would be a serious reversal of fortune.  We won’t know the answer to this question until early next week when the polls whose fieldwork ends Sunday are released.  And, of course, the battleground states are the ones that matter.  The national results are largely meaningless politically though they have a demonstrable influence on how the media covers the race.