Obama won the last debate but will it matter?

And so the last of the four TV-debates in the presidential election campaign is over and in only two weeks, America will choose a new president.

The debates have played an important role in this campaign, more important, perhaps, than in many a year, maybe since John F Kennedy met Richard Nixon in the very first debate in 1960 and upset the favorite, the sitting vice president.

In the first debate in this year’s campaign, the challenger Mitt Romney knocked the socks off a sleepy Barack Obama and became a serious challenger to the president. Obama’s listless performance let Romney into the race, a race that the president at that time led comfortably. And then, Romney held his ground pretty well, although the judgment is that Obama won the two following debates –last night’s by 48 percent to 40, according to CNN’s first quick poll, and by 53 percent to 23 according to CBS News.

Still, it was a fairly even debate where neither candidate committed any major mistakes. In fact, you could argue that there was no real debate, for Romney had decided to hold back, lie low, be cautious, and be presidential, or something. All his earlier criticism of Obama’s foreign policy was gone, replaced by broad consensus between the two about America’s role in the world and president Obama’s foreign policy.

On Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, the war on terror including the drone attacks against terrorists in various countries, and, yes, even on Libya, Romney took positions very close to Obama’s. By refraining from attacking Obama, Romney had clearly made a decision not to seem like a war hawk, not to seem belligerent and someone seeking new conflicts and new wars for America in the Middle East. By doing so, he moved towards the political center, towards a more moderate policy – he became a “man of peace,” as someone said, probably jokingly, afterwards.

Romney’s transition seemed to startle Obama a bit, although the president kept up his attacks, calling Romney’s foreign policy “all over the map” and charging him for trying to “air brush history.” And while expressing his satisfaction that Romney now supported the administration’s diplomatic efforts in that volatile region, Obama could not refrain from sticking it to Romney when possible. Romney’s charge that the U.S. navy now has fewer ships since 1916 was met by, maybe, the “zinger” of the evening – Obama saying that the military now also had fewer bayonets and horses than in 1916…

Why the subdued, cautious Romney? Was he playing it safe in a race that now seemed more even than ever? Maybe. But as a result, he came to stand in stark contrast to a firm, straight talking, decisive president, who said he had done what he promised to do when he became president, and that he was the best one to lead America in the next four years.

Will what happened in this final debate matter? We don’t know yet. The two previous debates between Obama and Romney had each been watched by almost 70 million people. Last night’s debate most likely had fewer viewers. Foreign policy is not the main theme of this campaign. And most voters seem to have made up their minds by now. The number of undecided are very few and the remaining two weeks of the campaign will be more about getting out the vote — turnout can decide this election, which is so crucial for America and this country’s future.

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Good post-debate numbers for Obama but will it last?

The first quick polls after the debate last night pointed to a victory for of Barack Obama against Mitt Romney, 46 per cent to 39 in the CNN survey, 37 per cent to 30 of CBS’s survey and 48 per cent to 31 in the Google Consumer Surveys among registered voters.

It was a new Obama that showed up last night, compared to the Denver debate two weeks ago: tough, aggressive, committed, concentrated, eloquent. Unlike in Denver, Obama did not give way on a single point, constantly counterattacking and repeatedly stating that what Romney said was not true.

You could almost hear the sigh of relief among Democrats. It was a new ball game. The strangely absent president in Denver was a distant memory — “Obama was back!”

Romney was also clearly not as strong as in the first debate, forced on the defensive by Obama’s unwillingness to budge an inch. Several of his answers, on tax policy and women’s issues, but especially on Libya, were weak. On Libya, Romney had to stand corrected by the moderator as to what the president said after the deadly attack on the American consulate.

In addition to these first positive poll numbers for Obama, the fact that the media almost unanimously pointed to Obama’s strong debate will greatly influence public opinion in the next days.

Conclusion: Obama seems to have regained the initiative in the election campaign after the Denver debacle. The question is how much will the debate move the head-to-head polls between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama?

Nate Silver has a warning on his FiveThirtyEight blog:

“Actually, the instant reaction polls may not be very much help in answering that question. The relationship between the quick-reaction polls and their contingent effect on the horse-race polls has historically been very modest, and has sometimes even run in the opposite direction of what the initial polls suggested. Debates sometimes look different in the rear-view mirror, depending on news media coverage, YouTube and cable news highlights, word of mouth, and subsequent developments on the campaign trail. “

He continues:

“But if you want my best guess: Throughout this election cycle, you would have done very well by predicting that the polls would eventually settle in at an overall lead for Mr. Obama of about two percentage points.”

Silver now puts Obama’s chances to win the election at 64.8 per cent, while the betting site Intrade sets the number at 64.9 per cent, up from 61.7 before last night’s debate.

The third and final debate will take place next Monday. It will be on foreign policy — Obama’s strength and Romney’s weakness — both of which were underlined again in the Libya debate last night.  That speaks to Obama’s advantage, but much can still happen as the campaign moves to a final decision on Election Day.

Obama’s second debate with Romney could decide the race

In view of the many ups and downs in the U.S. presidential election campaign lately — a disastrous performance by president Obama in his first debate with Mitt Romney followed by an offensive rescue mission by vice president Biden in his debate with Paul Ryan — Tuesday evening’s second debate between Obama and Romney could be decisive.

Helped by Biden, who said everything to Ryan that Obama did not say but should have said to Romney, and who instilled new hope among despondent Democrats, Obama needs to step up and do well and, thereby, re-take the initiative and the lead in the polls that he lost after his debacle.

All indications are that the race has tightened and that Obama’s poor performance let Romney back in the race. But the polls also show that although the race is even nationally, it has not changed that much in the battleground states, particularly the key state of Ohio, where Obama still leads, although less so, by 2,2 percentage points according to RealClearPolitics. No Republican presidential candidate has ever won without winning in Ohio, so much depends on the Buckeye State and its 18 electoral votes.

The winner on November 6 needs a minimum of 270 electoral votes. In 36 of the 50 States, the outcome is already decided – Romney will win in 22 and Obama in 14. But since Obama’s victories will come in more populous state, he is ahead in the battle for electoral votes.

The outcome of the election will be decided primarily in nine states with a total of 110 electoral votes.FiveThirtyEight, the New York Times blog, recently described the situation in these nine states as following: Colorado (9) even; Florida (29) even; Iowa (6) leaning toward Obama; Nevada (6) leaning toward Obama; New Hampshire (4) probably Obama; North Carolina (15) probably Romney; Ohio (18) leaning toward Obama, Virginia (13) even; and Wisconsin (10) probably Obama.

On the betting site Intrade, 62.8 percent predict an Obama victory. Let’s see what they say after Tuesday’s debate!

As race tightens VP debate becomes more important

Tonight’s TV debate between Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican challenger Paul Ryan will be exciting and important, although it will not affect the election outcome in any significant way.

That’s the belief, at least, of Gallup, whose recent report shows that none of the last eight debates between vice presidential candidates, between 1976 and 2008, had a major impact on the election results. In the 2008 election, for example, when Joe Biden debate Sarah Palin, support for the Republicans fell by only 1 percent after the debate, while support for the Democrats rose by 2 percent.

The race has tightened since Romney’s strong debate last Wednesday coupled with Barack Obama’s close to catastrophic performance. But, warns Nate Silver on his excellent political statistics blog FiveThirtyEight, in spite of Romney’s great success in the polls after the debate, he has not taken the lead in one of the ten “swing states” or “battle ground states”.

Romney, according to Silver, may have improved his chances of winning the election by 15 to 20 percent a result of his victory in the first TV debate, but:

”The more troubling sign for Mr. Romney, however, is that although he’s made gains, he does not seem to have taken the lead in very many state polls. That trend, if anything, has become more entrenched. Of the half-dozen or so polls of battleground states published on Wednesday, none showed Mr. Romney ahead; the best result he managed was a 48-48 tie in a Rasmussen Reports poll of New Hampshire.”

So Biden-Ryan debate tonight becomes very important for the remaining four weeks of the election campaign. For the Democrats the goal is to regain the lead and the momentum before Obama’s failed debate and for the Republicans it’s about not losing their new momentum. How will it happen?

I like Matt Miller’s advice to Biden in his weekly column in the Washington Post about what the vice president must do to win the debate. It will not be enough to accuse Romney of being a “liar” – more is needed.

How will Romney’s victory affect the remaining campaign?

Today, the day after the big Romney victory in the first of three TV-debates with president Obama, the question is if it will have a lasting effect on the rest of the election campaign. We won’t know until new polls are published in the coming days.

The first quick polls by CNN and CBS confirm what all of the 50 million could see and experience, an energetic and aggressive Romney won, and won handily, the TV debate against a dull and listless Barack Obama.

The question is how many of the 50 million could follow the often detailed, wonkish, discussion, full of numbers and facts. And how many got tired or bored, and tuned out before the end? We don’t know, which makes it more difficult to predict whether Romney’s uptick in the first opinion polls will continue, and, thus, whether his debate victory will have a lasting impact on the remaining election campaign. A great majority, both on the left and on the right, agrees that Romney won, but how much does this really means for the voters’ verdict on November 6?

The prominent political analyst, University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, on his “Sabato’s Crystal Ball”:

“Just because Romney won handily – and the press will report it that way – that does not mean voter preferences will necessarily change all that much. Often, voters can judge one candidate to have won a Debate, but not change their ballot choice as a consequence….History cautions us not to over-state the importance of any debate, if this one really does move the numbers in a significant way for Romney, it will be more exception than rule in the relatively short history of televised American presidential debates.”

In anticipation of new polls, the discussion today centered on what happened to Obama. Why did he not attack Romney harder? Why did he let so much of what Romney said stand unchallenged? Why did he let himself be interrupted by Romney? Why did he not say anything about Romney’s “47 percent? Disappointed liberal commentators had many questions and some urged Obama to change tactics.

Charles Blow on the blog “Campaign Stops” in the New York Times:

“This is the closing argument of a campaign. The jury has heard all the evidence that it’s going to hear. The candidates needed to deliver a strong, moving summation. We all know that Obama is capable of stirring oratory, but in the first debate he failed to deliver. The guy with the weaker case made the stronger statement, falsehoods and all, and that is a dangerous thing to allow so close to Election Day.”

Others, like Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast, saw the debate as evidence that Mitt Romney, so known for his flip-flops, had changed his persona yet again and now returned to being a moderate Massachusetts Republican – a “Rockefeller Republican” – and that Obama had no response to this “new” Romney. Obama was “terrible,” Tomasky wrote:

“There’s no use pretending this doesn’t shake up the race. It surely does. How much, none of us knows. The Democratic spinners need to get busy on the fact-checking front. But this is mostly about Obama. Romney caught him totally flatfooted with the Rockefeller Republican move, and Obama didn’t know how to respond. If this is the new Romney, he’d better figure out how.”

This “new” Romney will have much to answer for in the coming weeks. The image of a candidate that voters do not really know where he stands has been strengthened. How credible is it that Romney now wants to appear as Medicare’s great defender, that he no longer wishes to acknowledge his big tax cut plan totaling 5 trillion dollars, that he has suddenly become the defender of the middle class, the same 47 percent he had previously said that he does not care about? We shall see. But surely this is what the Obama campaign will zero in on during the remaining election campaign.

Yes, I believe it’s now time to talk about a turning point

Home again in Washington, DC after two weeks in the Nordic countries, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, primarily to participate in the publication on September 20 of my book “Amerika – drömmarnas land” (America – country of dreams) in Stockholm.

Nice book release party at the Dance Museum in Stockholm with many old friends, a book discussion at the ABF educational association with journalist colleague Stig Fredrikson, a lengthy interview on the Knowledge Channel about the book. The American election campaign is the center of attention in the Swedish newspapers and on radio and television. The coverage is amazingly extensive.

On the way back home, a short visit with good friends in Reykjavik and a lunch seminar at the Icelandic Foreign Ministry about my book and the U.S. elections. Lively and fun!

The return home came just in time for today’s big event, the first of three televised debates between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But before that, I will also head to the ballpark to cheer on my Washington Nationals on the last day of the regular season for winning the National League Eastern Division and for taking the local baseball team to the playoffs for the first time since 1933!

Tonight then, in Denver, Colorado? I remember the first TV debate ever, in the autumn of 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, shortly after I arrived in the U.S. for the first time. JFK won the debate and he won the election, albeit with the slimmest of margins. Ever since then, the importance of these debates has been discussed. The conclusion? Not unanimous. Sometimes, as in 1980 when Ronald Reagan faced Jimmy Carter, Reagan came out on top and then won the election. Sometimes, as in 2004, John Kerry won dthe debate but George W. Bush the election. And last time, in 2008, the debate winner, Barack Obama, also won the election.

The Washington Post summarizes the situation ahead of tonight’s debate.

A few weeks ago, I wrote on this blog that something had happened after the two party conventions but that I did not want to call it a turning point in the campaign. Since then, the situation for Mitt Romney through a series of mistakes, especially his talk about America’s “47 percent,” has steadily weakened. And now the conclusion is inescapable: we have reached a turning point. Obama has strengthened his position on a wide front and time is running out for Romney.

To reverse this trend, Romney tonight needs not just to have a major breakthrough, but he also needs a major mistake, a major gaffe, by Obama. That is unlikely to happen.