The most worn-out way of analyzing political debates is about whether a knockout punch was delivered. It’s predicated on a false assumption about what the debaters are usually trying to do.
Mostly they are looking to prove that they are intelligent people, with a command of the facts, an ability to speak clearly and a certain amount of charm, humour and empathy.
When on the attack, as they must be from time to time, they are concerned to avoid looking too “hot” or hostile towards their opponent. Connecting with repeated jabs is a better way of characterizing the goal. Rarely is anyone trying to drop an opponent to the mat with a roundhouse punch.
Most of the time, debaters in a two-horse race don’t feel a need for a KO: a draw will suit their purposes pretty well. But last night’s third debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama was a little different. Both campaigns need to perform at the peak of their potential.
The race is now very close, and the first two debates had a powerful impact on voters. For both parties, victory is within reach, but a strong finish is crucial.
The substance of last night’s debate was foreign policy, but it simply played out like the third game of a best of three series. The discussion of international affairs was spirited, but strikingly limited in breadth. With the exception of sparring about who has the best approach for bringing jobs back from China, the discussion of America in the world centered on security, not economic issues.
There was little evident interest in Africa or South America. None of the other G8 countries rated a discussion except a mild skirmish about whether Russia was still a threat to America. Brazil, India, Canada, Mexico and other major trading partners were not on the radar screen. The European financial crisis has been the world’s most talked about economic challenge for months, but neither candidate seemed to have anything they wanted to say about it last night.
One reason for the lack of breadth to the discussion is the fact that both campaigns know that the average U.S. voter, and especially uncommitted swing voters, are fixated on the domestic economy.
Mr. Obama’s battle-honed pitch is “things are getting better, and let’s not return to the policies that got America into this mess.” Mr. Romney says “things are horrible, people have a right to demand better, and my ideas will work.”
While the jousting last night about the Middle East, Iran and Israel was interesting, more voters probably reacted to the moment when the candidates went at each other over their past support for the U.S. automakers.
In the remaining days, this focus will continue to narrow. This race is coming down to a matchup focusing on 5 to 6 million voters in Ohio, assuming similar turnout rates to those in 2008. Political statistician Nate Silver notes that in the 40,000 Electoral College simulations he runs in a typical day, 38,000 times the winner is the candidate who carries Ohio. To say that both candidates must win this state is an understatement.
Last night, neither candidate had a bad outing, but Mr. Obama probably got more out of the evening. The President risked looking a bit too hot, and slightly desperate in the early going, but by the second half, Mr. Romney seemed to be running out of interesting things to say, or compelling ways to say them. Mr. Romney succeeded in looking like he could be president, but not necessarily a better president than Mr. Obama.
Which is, in the end, the question that will settle this election. Mr. Romney has survived the brutal U.S. vetting process and is seen as a credible option. But is his economic prescription the right one for America’s middle class? Would it prove better or worse than the slow healing that is Mr. Obama’s approach?
Polls show Republicans buy Mr. Romney’s message on the economy, Democrats accept Mr. Obama’s. Since August, Gallup shows that Independent voters are feeling modestly better about the economy, which has helped feed the President’s modest advantage thus far. Unless Mr. Romney can convince these voters that he has what it takes to create even better growth, little else will matter.
Bruce Anderson is one of Canada’s leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC’s popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger, and Senior Adviser with NATIONAL Public Relations.