There is only one real measure of who won a debate — who won undecided voters?
Most pundits thought Obama won the debate. In a CBS poll of debate viewers, Obama was thought to have won, 37 percent to 30 percent. The CNN poll had it Obama 46, Romney 39.
But on the crucial issue of “who would do a better job on the economy?” Romney won. CBS had it Romney, 65 percent, Obama 34 percent. And CNN: Romney, 58, Obama, 40.
Obama thrilled some of his supporters just by “showing up.” He did much better than in his first debate — he was more aggressive, and often seemed irate and indignant. But he did not answer the question that has kept many undecided voters undecided: What would he do differently in a second term?
Obama scored many debating points, but on issue after issue he failed to be persuasive.
The CNN poll revealed that Romney is now seen as a strong, “presidential” alternative:
“Who seemed to be the stronger leader?” Romney 49 percent, Obama 46 percent. “Who would better handle the economy?” Romney 58, Obama 40. “Health care?” Romney 49, Obama 46. “Taxes?” Romney 51, Obama 44. “Deficit?” Romney 56, Obama 36.
On questions about debate performance, Obama fared better. “Who was more likable?” Obama 47, Romney 41. “Who spent more time attacking his opponent?” Obama 49, Romney 35. “Who seemed to care more about audience members?” Obama 44, Romney 40. “Who answered questions most directly?” Obama 43, Romney 45.
Obama out-scored Romney in debating points, as John Kerry did with George W. Bush before losing the election. You can win a battle and lose the war.
The debate was combative, but not conclusive. Obama did what he needed to do to rouse and reassure his supporters. Romney reinforced his base too. Neither candidate did particularly well in projecting a “winning personality” because both were confrontational and often just reiterated points from their stump speeches.
Romney had a closing theme that could prove to be winning: “We don’t have to settle” for this kind of economy. It’s an echo of what John Kennedy used against Richard Nixon in 1960: “We can do better.” Obama had a message of “fairness” for his base, but not a theme for undecided voters who worry that the next four years will be like the last four.
Both campaigns will wage a debate about last night’s debate — who won and who was right on various issues. Most undecided voters will just patiently wait for the next debate.
Todd Domke is WBUR’s Republican analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.