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On the second presidential debate

By Elvin Lim

The second presidential debate tells us about the candidates’ readings of their own campaigns. Both Romney and Obama were fighting for airtime, trying to break out of the impasse of “he-said-she-said.”

Women were mentioned about 30 times in the debate because Romney knew that he had to close the gender gap. Obama joined in on the China bashing because Romney has started to gain traction with workers in Ohio with his attacks on China’s trade violations.

Obama knew that he had to deflate the Libya story, so he took full responsibility for what happened in Benghazi, even though Secretary Clinton had given him an out. Obama’s taking offense at Romney’s charges wouldn’t have gained him any Republican converts, but undecided voters are usually willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the Commander-in-Chief because nobody has access to intelligence information the way the president does. The good news for Obama is that the next debate (on foreign policy) will shield him from his weakest link, the economy.

Where Romney will continue to have the benefit of the doubt is his proposed handling of the economy. His strongest moment in the second debate was when he pulled up statistics on the number of people unemployed, on food stamps, the size of the national debt, etc. This was Republican version of Bill Clinton’s “arithmetic” speech. Obama tried to characterize Romney’s economic plan as a “sketchy deal.” The problem is that he doesn’t exactly start off with a whole lot of credibility.

Emboldened by his last debate performance, Romney might have been too enthusiastic in the second debate. At times, he may have been snarkier than he should have been. Undecided voters, who already don’t like negativity, would not have liked Romney’s smack-down of Obama. (“That wasn’t a question; that was a statement.”)

Overall, Obama did much better in this debate than in the last, but he didn’t do enough to make up the ground he lost, in part because of the town hall format. A victory when a candidate is standing beside his opponent and sparring with him directly is more compelling than a (possible) victory when both are directing their comments to a small group of voters. The town hall format is just less interesting to watch, and I won’t be surprised that audiences were bored and channel-surfing during the second debate.

As far as the horse race goes, Obama still has more paths to 270. Romney is looking good in Florida, but Obama leads in Virginia and Ohio. The Romney team knows that their campaign needs to put Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin in play in case they lose Ohio. Watch for a re-nationalized campaign strategy from Team Romney if they see movement in these previously leaning-Democrat states.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears on the OUPblog regularly.

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