President Obama won in 2008 largely because of support among independents. Whichever poll you want to look at, Obama badly trails Governor Romney among independents this year. And he is going to have to cut into Romney's independent support if he wants to win a second term.
Here are the thoughts I found myself thinking while watching Tuesday's debates.
Who Won? President Obama did what he needed to do and was 100 percent better and more engaged than the first debate. But Governor Romney did very, very well, especially in prosecuting his case against Obama's record and the lack of economic progress over the last four years.
Looking at this debate in isolation, I'd call it a draw. But for voters who are mostly persuaded by general impressions (as opposed to the specific content of the answers), if you're the challenger and you manage a draw vs. the incumbent, it can be considered a win. In this case, a tie goes to the challenger.
Body Language: I don't think body language and the strutting around the stage were a big deal. Both Obama and Romney gave and got on that front. It's really a function of the "town hall" debate format. Which I think sucks, because...
Town Hall Format: Putting programmed, artificial questions in the mouths of ordinary citizens as a way of getting them to 'directly participate in the process' isn't authentic and comes across for just what it is -- highly staged.
It's also a very tough format to moderate. Candy Crowley got run over by both Obama and Romney -- she really didn't control the proceedings. And once both the candidates realized she couldn't control them, it just got worse.
Problems For Governor Romney: But this debate was potentially problematic for Romney. Here's why: he positions himself as a hard-headed business guy, and that image is buttressed when he throws around numbers, facts, and statistics. That's attractive to independent and persuadable voters, but credibility is particularly important with these voters. So when you get undercut on some of your numbers and facts and statistics, it can be very damaging to your positioning.
Three examples from Tuesday's debate:
1. Governor Romney's statement about whether Obama called the Libya incident an act of terrorism. He kept insisting he was correct... and he wasn't. He was factually wrong, and he was called on it in real time by Crowley. (This, by the way, was her finest moment. I mean, think about it: at any sports bar or dinner conversation we can pick up our smart phones and determine a fact to settle a dispute; why can't we see this done more often by moderators in political debates?) That exchange undermined the image Romney most wants to project: that he is in command of the facts and figures.
2. Governor Romney's consistent response to calls for specifics about whether he can pay for the tax cuts and balanced budget is always "Of course it adds up." And then he changes the subject. Independents and persuadable voters are getting pretty tired of this. If it adds up, then SHOW US HOW IT ADDS UP, Mr. Numbers Guy.
3. On the issue of energy production on federal lands, Governor Romney kept quoting a statistic that was true, but was slicing the baloney pretty thin. President Obama called him on it and made him look bad. Energy producers who had permits to work federal lands weren't using the permits, so the Obama administration pulled them. That seems pretty reasonable to most independent voters, and if that's why energy production is down on some federal lines, that seems reasonable, too.
I thought that Romney ended up with egg on his face in these instances, and now he's given persuadable voters and independents good reasons to doubt his use of facts and statistics coming down the stretch. That's not good if your positioning is that you are the numbers and facts and statistics candidate in the race.
Many independents are still up for grabs. I know these two base-oriented campaigns want to keep telling us how small the independent/undecided vote is, and I know why they want to convince people of that-- but it's simply not true. If it were, you wouldn't have seen numbers shift by four or six or nine percentage points after the first debate. What I'm seeing is that there's a good 12-15 percent of the electorate (and possibly two or three points more) that is going to be sliding around -- a lot -- on who they support between now and the election. So these debates (and more importantly, the media resonance around these debates) are pretty consequential.