President Obama answers a question during the debate on Oct. 16. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
It is a thing of wonder to watch a presidential debate live, but it puts me at a disadvantage: I don't have any way of knowing how the candidates performed, because that judgment is made with the help of the television. I didn't look at Twitter, so coming out of the debate, I had no idea how the two men looked and I didn't know what others, including my peers in the media, might have thought.
What I thought: Obama killed it. He outdebated Romney, he never once seemed churlish, he had a better command of the facts, and he conveyed the aura of a man who is confident about his choices. Romney kept hitting bumps. He didn't let go of small points. He seemed irritated and peevish. He was uncharacteristically tongue-tied. As I reviewed my notes after the debate, though, Romney probably did better than my gut told me. But Obama still won the evening, and did so convincingly. I think if this debate had been first, Republicans would have a conniption. But since Romney tightened a race that won't loosen up much no matter what happens, the momentum for Obama will probably be somewhat less.
Now, Romney made a good case repeatedly: that voters have given Obama four years to pursue his policies, and they haven't worked. What reason is there to think that Obama would do better in a second term? His best answers were his first. I scored each of the 15 questions individually, and Romney won the first. A 20-year-old college student wanted to know whether he'd be able to get a job. Romney's answer was more direct and more persuasive. He told the questioner Jeremy: "I am gonna make sure you've got a job."
Question two was about long-term unemployment, but it turned into a fight over the auto bailout. Obama pointed out that Romney's conception of managed bankruptcy assumed that private capital would be available, which it wasn't. The audience understood that Obama got the auto bailout right and Romney got it wrong. Obama also got in a shot at Romney's "rule" — that folks at the high end of the income scale get all the breaks.
He did slightly better on question three: A man named Phillip asked Obama whether his Energy Secretary was correct to say that the government had no role in reducing gas prices in the short term. Obama never really answered, instead preferring to defend his record in terms of domestic energy production. Romney and Obama got into a tiff over how to best characterize how Obama did or didn't open federal land to more oil drilling, but Romney has the better argument when it comes to the policies that voters favor. Obama does not come off as a convincing oil man.
The debate then turned to a long discussion of Romney's economic plan. It's a plus for him in that people know that he has one. Obama didn't really get to mention his. But the questioner, Mary, wanted to know some specifics: What deductions would Romney get rid of in order to make his plan revenue neutral. Romney said that he'd give everyone $25,000 worth of deductions, but it wasn't clear how it would work, and that point got lost in Obama's effort to paint Romney as mathematically challenged. Romney made sure to note that middle class taxpayers haven't been helped as much by Obama as they might have anticipated. Obama ended by noting that Romney had campaign for a year on cutting taxes for everyone, including the wealthy, and "everybody should believe him."
Question 5 was about equal pay for women in the workplace. The Twitter meme of "binders full of women" is something I saw later, but it generally tracks with how I saw the exchange. Obama was in his wheelhouse and Romney wasn't. I don't think this question matters too much to the type of voters who have turned to Romney recently — married middle class white women — but maybe I'll be proven wrong. (These women obviously care about the issue, but they are more concerned with the economy in general.)
Question 6 could have been disastrous for Romney: Susan Katz asked how he differed from President Bush. Romney was ready with an answer, which surprised me. Obama turned it around, though, by unfavorably comparing Romney to Bush. I don't think undecided voters are relitigating the past the way Ms. Katz was.
It's getting late as I write this, so I'll speed through the rest of the questions.
Question 7 was from an Obama 2008 voter who wanted reassurance about his 2012 vote. Neither candidate answered this one particularly well.
Question 8, on immigration, was a slam dunk for Obama.
Question 9 saw the heated exchange on Libya; Romney gets the issue extended until the next debate, but Obama got the better of the exchange and was factually accurate.
Neither candidate distinguished themselves on an assault weapons ban.
And Obama won the final question in part because he got the last word. He was able to drop the "47 percent line" without Romney being able to respond.
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