Obama Wins And Loses Debate By Being Prosecutorial

The third presidential debate was similar to the second debate. President Obama out-scored Mitt Romney on points, but neither won with undecided voters, so the dynamic of the race stays the same.

Obama’s strategy was to be prosecutorial, and he succeeded. Romney’s strategy was to be reassuringly presidential, and he too succeeded.

A CNN poll of debate viewers tells the story:

“Who won the debate?” Obama, 48 percent. Romney, 40 percent.

“Who did the debate make you more likely to vote for?” Obama, 24. Romney, 25.

Obama’s prosecutorial style was effective, but also somewhat counterproductive. “Who seemed to be the stronger leader?” Obama 51, Romney 46. But on the question, “Who was more likable?” Obama 48, Romney 47. (In past polls Obama beat Romney on being more likable by 30 points… but now he was down to just one.)

Supporters of Obama relished his criticism of Romney, which was pretty relentless. The CNN poll asked, “Who spent more time attacking his opponent?” and Obama “won” 68-21. But a CNN focus group of undecided voters found they didn’t like a negative tone.

Romney had his weakest performance of the three debates, but he achieved what seemed to be his main objective: reassure viewers that he is peace-loving and reasonable. The CNN poll asked if he could handle the responsibilities of commander-in-chief and Romney passed the test: 60 yes, 38 no. For a challenger without military or foreign affairs experience, that was a very positive result. Obama did just a little better: 63 yes, 36 no.

Romney was surprisingly agreeable on some foreign policy issues — Syria, Afghanistan, drone policy, the original reaction to upheaval in Egypt — and didn’t go after the president on the Libyan security issue. He focused his criticism on select issues, like warning that Iran was “four years closer” to developing a nuclear weapon.

The challenger’s strategy of trying to be reassuring and statesmanlike was based on the reality that most voters are war-weary. They believe the U.S. is on the “wrong track,” so they want change, but not destabilizing change.

Obama did an impressive job of unloading every bit of opposition research on Romney, delivering soundbite after soundbite. But he had a negative, lecturing tone throughout the debate and seemed more disdainful of Romney than he did of any foreign adversary.

The final segment — closing arguments — might have been the only one Romney “won.” Obama continued to sound negative in his final pitch, complaining about Romney. But Romney closed by talking about “principles of peace,” an optimistic vision of prosperity and his success in being bipartisan as a governor working with a Democratic legislature.

Obama supporters enjoyed his out-debating Romney, and some conservatives were disappointed that Romney wasn’t as critical of the president.

But the debate goes on — in news coverage, advertising, canvassing and conversation — and this race looks like it did before the debate: It’s too close to call.

Todd Domke is WBUR’s Republican analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.

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  • Sinclair2

    It’s troubling to hear Romney claim that Russia is our greatest enemy while al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, Iran and North Korea stand out in the minds of the general public.  Meanwhile, we’ve been sharing a space station and the forefront of space technology with Russia.

    At times like this, it’s scary to think of Romney as being president of this country.

    • razorfish

      Romney said that Russia presented the greatest geopolitical threat because of its renewed aggressiveness (as in Georgia) and its support for despots like Assad in Syria, but that Iran was the most significant threat to our national security in the near term. Last night, Wolf Blitzer replayed his interview with Romney from which these comments were excerpted. I knew that you would want to get this right so you wouldn’t be criticizing Romney unfairly.

      • Sinclair2

        Romney used the term “Russia is our greatest enemy” while on the campaign trail a few months ago.  Adverse reaction was instantaneous.  He has since changed it to “greatest geopolitical threat” and I’m sure this new term was devised by his foreign affairs coach John Bolton, former W. Bush U.N. Ambassador.  With Romney, one must stay tuned to his changes.

        I would ask that question to the families who lost their loved ones while fighting for the defense of our country and one does not need to be coached for the answer.

        Russia is on our watch and beware list for now.

        • razorfish

          You can continue to assert that Romney said something that he did not say or, if you care about getting the facts straight, you can consult politifact.com at this link http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/sep/07/barack-obama/obama-says-romney-called-russia-our-no-1-enemy/

          • Sinclair2

            I vividly recall Romney saying “Russia is our greatest enemy” while he was on the campaign trail.  It was reported as a quote in the Boston Globe.

  • http://epiphron.tumblr.com/ BCC

    Any remaining voters that are still undecided are unlikely to be decisive enough to get out the door on Nov. 6. This is about turnout now. Obama got his base fired up. “Obama supporters enjoyed his out-debating Romney, and some conservatives were disappointed that Romney wasn’t as critical of the president” is what’ll matter most.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mary-Blaisdell/100002547833453 Mary Blaisdell

    Why would anyone vote for a candidate who constantly changes his positions and lies about holding unpopular ones? 

    • razorfish

      It’s true that President Obama changes his positions frequently, but I think that calling him a liar is disrespectful.

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