After Denver, President Obama went into Tuesday night’s town hall debate at Hofstra University with a tall order: He had to win back independents and women who gave Mitt Romney a second look after the first debate and he had to fire up a demoralized Democratic base.
Did he do it?
Among Democratic strategists, the consensus from last night’s debate is that he did. And the cherry on top: Romney stumbled.
It was crucial for Obama to show strength and he delivered, Democrats told TPM. At this stage in the race, you don’t win undecided voters with new information but by displaying confidence in what you will do and what you have done.
“An undecided voter is thinking, are you the kind of leader that’s going to go fight for something,” Missouri-based Democratic strategist Roy Temple said. “They’re gonna make a gut judgment… Even if they don’t agree with your policy prescription, they just want to know you’re gonna make the effort.”
As for Obama being dragged down by a demoralized base? “Any risk of that is now zero with last night’s performance,” Temple said.
Obama’s performance excelled because he not only pushed his own policies but held Romney accountable for his, Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist and pollster, explained. Romney didn’t “get away with anything” and Obama “took some of the false veneer of moderation off of Romney,” Mellman said.
The president also made strides among women voters, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told TPM. Lake pointed to the snap poll her firm conducted after the debate: Women deemed Obama the winner by a much wider margin (56-34 percent) than men (49-43 percent). “Resoundingly yes,” Lake said when asked if Obama hit his political goals at the debate. “[He] created momentum with women, too,” she added.
But it wasn’t just Obama’s performance that had Democrats in high spirits the day after the debate. Romney also created some self-inflicted wounds, they argue.
“I think Romney did himself some real damage,” Mellman said. “He stepped on the moderator. He was disrespectful toward the president. … I think Romney ended up hurting himself.”
And when it came to Libya, a winning issue for Republicans, “Romney blew it,” Mellman said, referring to the moment when moderator Candy Crowley stepped in to say Obama had in fact said the words “act of terror” the day after the attacks in Benghazi. “He was inaccurate and that matters.”
Mellman believes it will be five or six days before the impact of the debate on the election becomes clear, but said early national polls will show some indication. “Obama went into this debate as a slight favorite for re-election; he comes out of it as a somewhat stronger favorite — in what will still likely be an extraordinarily close race,” Mellman said.
The Republican view of Obama’s debate performance is less rosy, but still largely positive for fans of the president. Republican strategist Ford O’Connell told TPM that Obama “got more out of” the debate than Romney because the president’s performance fired up his base, which was feeling low following the Denver debate. But O’Connell said it’s not clear yet whether the debate accomplished the Democrats’ second goal of blunting Mitt-mentum.
“Looking at [post-debate polling], they all felt that Romney did better on things like economy, the deficit and strong leadership,” he said. “Those issues right there — I know it’s hard to pull out of flash polls and focus groups — show this debate might not have dented Romney’s momentum to the extent that most of those on the left think.”
O’Connell said the talk about women’s issues might play both ways. While Romney made a misstep with his “women full of binders” line, O’Connell said, he also may have appealed to them with his focus on the economy. Suburban women — who pundits said were the focus of the debate for both candidates — could be open to Romney’s continued focus on the economy when women’s issues come up.
“I definitely think the president did well by talking about the Ledbetter Act,” he said. “The blue collar suburban mom, we’re still seeing, yes they’re concerned about equal pay, but they’re concerned about pay in general.”
Pay close attention to swing state polls in coming says, O’Connell said, to see if the debate moves the needle among persuadable voters.