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.