In elections involving sitting presidents, two questions are key: First, is a majority of the electorate willing to consider replacing the incumbent? If the answer is no (as it was in 1984, for example), there is nothing much that the challenger can do. But if the answer is yes, then the second question becomes decisive: does the challenger represent an acceptable alternative?
Evidence points to three basic facts about the 2012 election: a narrow majority of the population is at least willing to consider replacing President Obama; the condition of the economy is overwhelmingly the most important issue; and as the first presidential debate began, Mitt Romney had not persuaded the people that he would be an acceptable replacement for Obama, let alone preferable as the occupant of the Oval Office.
Indeed, Romney found himself with his back against the wall. His vice presidential selection yielded at least as many vulnerabilities as advantages. His convention was the least successful in recent political history.
Mistakes made by his campaign, and by the candidate himself, conveyed the impression that he was out of touch with the needs and concerns of average families, perhaps even unsympathetic to them. (The notorious "47 percent" comment reinforced this worry.) And Romney's acceptance speech failed to provide much information about the policies he would employ to accelerate economic growth, put unemployed Americans back to work and reverse the long decline in household incomes.
Romney bore the burden of changing the trajectory of the race. After all, the American people already have four years of information about Barack Obama and can judge his performance in office. By contrast, Romney was relatively unknown, and much of what the people learned about him since he clinched the Republican nomination was unfavorable. Obama would win the first debate if he didn't lose it, while Romney would lose if he didn't win it. And if Romney was seen as the loser, many undecided and weakly committed voters might not give him another chance.
Did Mitt Romney do what he needed to do in tonight's debate to address these concerns and shift the public debate? Was there a single moment that crystallized the choice to his advantage? And (more intangibly) did he conduct himself in a "presidential" manner?
What matters, of course, is the people's judgment, not a commentator's, and it will be a few days before we know what conclusions the people have reached. But for what it's worth, here are my initial impressions:
First, Romney presented himself as a reasonable man -- neither an extremist nor an ideologue. He calmly rebutted familiar attacks on his proposals. He was clear and forceful, tough but respectful. He sounded knowledgeable. He conveyed an impression of competence and experience as a potential manager of the economy. He praised some aspects of the Obama administration's program, such as its Race to the Top education reform program. And when he insisted on the importance of working together across party lines, it sounded as though he meant it.
Second, Romney wove a number of anecdotes -- peoples' stories from the campaign trail -- into his policy discussions. This had the effect of softening his image as a soulless manager focused solely on the bottom line. So did his assertion that the country has a responsibility to care for those who cannot care for themselves.
Third, Romney provided a number of policy specifics, and his virtual PowerPoint style -- a series of bullets laid out clearly -- underscored the impression of specificity. My guess is that viewers will come away with the sense that they know considerably more than they did before
Fourth, Romney found an organizing theme for his proposals -- job creation. He defended his views on marginal tax rates as conducive to the formation and growth of small business, a major source of employment gains. By repeatedly returning to the subject of job creation, he linked his managerial skills to the well-being of real human beings.
Did Romney commit an egregious gaffe that will be replayed repeatedly in the coming days? If he did, I missed it.
The bottom line: I think Romney did himself considerable good during the first debate. I would not be surprised to learn that a majority of the American people think he won it outright. At the very least, he vastly exceeded expectations. I suspect that over the next week, the public opinion surveys will show a significantly narrowing of the gap between President Obama and his re-energized challenger.
This post appeared first at Brookings.edu.