The big story in media reactions to the second presidential debate was the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, walking back her headline-grabbing attempt to protect Obama from criticism over the Benghazi attack. Facing a firestorm of criticism from social media, and even CNN co-host Anderson Cooper, Crowley gave a post-debate interview where she described her injection into the debate as “one of those moments, and I could even feel that here, you know, when you say something you’re not expecting.” In other words, an uncontrolled outburst, which is not exactly the mark of a good debate moderator.
Crowley went on to concede that Romney was “right in the main, I just think he picked the wrong word.” Well, she claimed to have studied Obama’s post-Benghazi conduct extensively before the debate, and if she had, she would have known Romney was “right in the main” reflexively. Even a fairly casual student of the affair would know that Obama and his spokespeople spent weeks insisting the consulate attack was a spontaneous video protest. That should have been all the context Crowley needed to avoid taking Obama’s side in a hair-splitting contest over the phrase “acts of terror.”
This incident is a lot more than just evidence to support Republican complaints about media bias. Even last night, it was already prompting a tidal wave of media analysis on Benghazi, which is a subject Barack Obama most certainly does not want analyzed. The day following the debate will be dominated by such discussions, which will be further pulled in an Obama-unfriendly direction by Crowley’s walkback after the debate. Mitt Romney might have flubbed his Libya criticism a bit, but the result is a devastating day-after environment for Obama. It might even be worse than it would have been if Crowley hadn’t tried to save him.
Going into the debate, it was commonly presumed that the media was looking for a lively Obama performance, from which they could build a “comeback” narrative. They gave it their best shot last night, but it ended with a blast of kazoos, rather than trumpets, because the focus groups really undercut them. Nowhere was this more brutally evident than Frank Luntz’s focus group on Fox News, composed primarily of 2008 Obama voters in Nevada. The group swung energetically and decisively to support for Mitt Romney, who they almost universally described as more “presidential,” while they were bitterly disappointed in Obama. One of them was bitter enough to get bleep-worthy. (Warning: he’s not bleeped in the clip below.)
Luntz’s group of undecided voters, heavily seasoned with people who voted Obama last time, declared a huge swing to Romney after the debate. Even MSNBC’s focus group ended up going for Romney, and it was the most Obama-friendly panel any network was able to round up last night.
And really, outside of MSNBC, the media cheerleading for Obama had a rather subdued air about it. It felt more like a collective sigh of relief that at least Obama wasn’t as bad as he was in Denver. Mark Knoller of CBS News judged, via Twitter, that “both candidates scored points against one another, but it appeared Romney’s cuts at the President drew more political blood.” That’s a pretty good summary of the post-debate take from much of the press.
Of course, in a duel, much depends on where each swordsman is bleeding. CNN and CBS News both produced polls that declared Obama a marginal winner, but the internals were absolutely brutal for the President. Romney had commanding leads on virtually every issue, including amazing leads of 18 and 31 percent on the economy, respectively. CNN also gave him a 7-point edge on tax policy and a 23-point advantage on the deficit. Economy, taxes, deficit: that’s game, set, and match in this election.
One interesting side note about media reaction comes from Stephen Dinan of the Washington Times, who writes that unknown to debate viewers, reporters in the media room “erupted into applause after President Obama ridiculed the size of Mitt Romney’s personal wealth.” That was during the exchange where Romney asked if Obama was familiar with the investments made by his pension plan, and Obama (who very much does not want to discuss the Chinese investments held by said pension fund) joked that he doesn’t pay much attention to it, because it’s so much smaller than Romney’s. It’s odd that the media would think such a clumsy bit of class warfare would be a stand-up-and-cheer moment, because the voters obviously don’t think so. If this exchange gets any further attention in the days to come, it might make people question the wisdom of having a President who claims he doesn’t know what his own pension fund is doing with his money. He seems quite cavalier with how he handles our money, too.
CNN had their real-time Undecided Voter Enthusiasm Meter running again, and it was interesting to note that it went sour during all of the heated exchanges between the two candidates. Undecided voters apparently dislike the spectacle of two politicians shouting at each other. The other intriguing Enthuse-O-Matic response came when Obama finally dropped his “47 percent” attack on Romney during the closing moments, when he knew Romney would be given no opportunity to rebut it. CNN’s undecided voters registered barely any reaction. It doesn’t seem like a line of attack that connects with them.