Sabato's Crystal Ball

Unpacking the Final Debate

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, U.Va. Center for Politics October 22nd, 2012

The conventional wisdom before the debate season was that President Obama would have the edge in a foreign policy debate, and the conventional wisdom was right. The president, through superior knowledge and having — after four years — a record that is defensible in the field, won the third debate on foreign policy. Incumbent presidents typically have the edge on foreign affairs, although Jimmy Carter is, as always, the exception.

The question is, how big did Obama win? Not nearly as big as Romney in the first debate, obviously. But by a decent margin — more than debate two. Do two debate wins on points equal a giant win? No. And that’s Obama’s problem. Voters know him, and they didn’t know Romney — the first debate gave him a chance to make a first impression, and he nailed it. Obama isn’t going to deteriorate further because of this debate: If he goes down to defeat, it will be for other reasons. Meanwhile, it’s doubtful Romney did any real damage to himself, although his attempts to explain his position on the auto bailout — a key issue in vital Ohio — again fell flat.

This debate won’t have the same viewership as the first two; not only has foreign policy not been a major focus of this campaign, but the debate was also going up against “Monday Night Football” and a decisive Major League Baseball playoff game. The candidates tried to direct the conversation to domestic policies whenever they could, but it’s easy to imagine voters who are not familiar with many of the locales and issues discussed tonight. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider whether debates should have a limiting issue focus, or whether all the debates should be about all the issues.

While the president displayed greater mastery of the issues — Romney spent much of the night agreeing with him, playing a prevent defense of sorts — he was also occasionally condescending. Obama’s line about bayonets being obsolete, in response to Romney talking about building naval warships, will be widely quoted in stories about the debate, but we wonder if actual voters will respond positively to that “zinger.” Romney, on the other hand, was visibly nervous in the first part of the debate, and was on less familiar ground on several occasions.

The bottom line for Obama is that he has an enthusiasm problem. Polling consistently shows that registered voters are more supportive of the president than the smaller, likely voter pools — indeed, Romney has a narrow lead in averages of national polls, all of which have now shifted to likely voter models. What did Obama say in this debate that will boost Democratic enthusiasm? Binders and Big Bird didn’t do the trick earlier in the campaign season. Will bayonets? Probably not. However, here’s where the coverage of the debate will be important. Will the media report Obama’s performance as just good, or great? This could have some impact on Democratic enthusiasm.

The first post-debate poll from CBS, of undecided voters, showed a big victory for President Obama, on the order of Romney’s triumph in the first debate. As we’ve noted, this equivalency is false, and Romney got a giant boost unavailable to the incumbent now. Still, it’s possible Obama will get a decent lift from the final debate. Only time, and the blizzard of polls, can say for sure.