A general consensus quickly formed among media analysts after the third presidential debate: it was a tie that went to Mitt Romney, because it would do nothing to change the momentum of the race. Both contestants did what they set out to do, but what Romney set out to do was more worth doing. Obama was more aggressive and slipped in a few zingers, but Romney looked more presidential. ???Nothing happened tonight to change the race???s direction – and Romney walks away strong after playing on Obama???s turf, competing for his job,??? summarized Rick Klein of ABC News.
Instant polls were swiftly announced by CBS, CNN, and Public Policy Polling, the latter of which teased that its poll would show a huge blowout for Obama. On the contrary, when the PPP numbers were finally released, they had to scramble to bury the real news: the overall debate score was Obama 53, Romney 42??? but 47 percent of independent voters said the debate made them more likely to vote for Romney, while only 35 percent said the same of Obama???s performance.
It was a similar story over at CNN, whose snap poll scored the debate 48-40 for Obama overall, but the bottom line was that 25 percent of respondents pronounced themselves more likely to vote for Romney, compared to 24 percent to Obama. CNN???s pollsters also noted that Obama???s bonus points for super-aggressiveness appeared to come at some cost to his vaunted ???likability,??? since he and Romney were scored roughly even on that point. CBS News had by far the most favorable instant poll reaction for Obama, producing a 53-23 result for the President, with 24 percent calling the debate a tie.
If you turned to MSNBC looking for a good lunatic rant from Chris Matthews, you weren???t disappointed. The man who famously declared that ???Chicago??? is a racist code word told us that Romney was trying to appeal to ???the white working class in the South,??? where ???these numbers we???re getting the last couple days about racial hatred in many cases??? told a grim tale of blind hatred. In other words, Matthews fears Obama lost the debate.
Pollster Frank Luntz ran a focus group on Fox News that turned rather rowdy (and included a few participants who seemed much too interested in mugging for the camera.) The group was very heavily weighted toward Obama 2008 voters, but seemed very receptive to Romney???s argument about the importance of a strong national economy to foreign policy, and were generally impressed by Romney???s presidential attitude:
There were a few exchanges during the debate in which the contenders invited the media to fact-check their statements. Unfortunately for Obama, the media obliged, and found Romney was right on all of them. Obama???s mischaracterization of Romney???s position on the auto bailouts was shredded in real time, while the debate was still in progress. As Fox News summarized, ???The dispute between the candidates boils down to whether or not – as President Bush, and then President Obama believed – government loans were necessary to save Detroit or whether – as Romney argued — private financing, backed by federal guarantees, would have been a wiser response.???
Obama???s account of his role during the ???sequestration??? budgeting process was false; according to Bob Woodward???s book, the White House ???pitched the idea to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.??? And Obama???s desperate gambit of declaring that he wouldn???t allow sequestration to happen ???startled Washington,??? according to Politico. Obama campaign flacks scrambled to walk back the President???s statement within minutes of the debate???s conclusion.
He???s been using the threat of sequestration to bully Republicans into accepting tax hikes ??? a strategy that very much belies Obama???s noisy declarations of support for the military. He???s very comfortable with the idea of making the military scrape by with less, if his class enemies aren???t forced to cough up a little more dough to fund Obama???s big-spending agenda. ???”I was astonished,??? said Senator John McCain (R-AZ) of Obama???s promise that he would block the sequestration cuts. ???I almost fell out of my chair when the president said, ‘Don’t worry, sequestration won’t happen.’ We’ve been begging the president to sit down with us to avoid what his own secretary of defense said would be a devastating blow to our national security. He just said, ‘Don’t worry, sequestration won’t happen.’ He’s not a dictator yet.???
Obama???s attempt to misstate Romney???s position on Russia as America???s ???biggest geopolitical threat??? provoked a food fight between fact-checking organizations. Romney actually described Russia as ???our number one geopolitical foe,??? but in the same interview with CNN, he immediately described nuclear Iran ???the greatest threat that the world faces.??? It was, at any rate, silly for Obama to pretend that identifying a particular Number One Foe automatically means Romney would be blind to all other threats??? especially when it???s Obama???s blindness to certain threats that has gotten people killed.
The media was very excited by President Obama???s ???horses and bayonets??? line, widely hailing it as the most memorable line of the evening. ???We always try to look for the phrase or expression that will live forever out of these,??? intoned Brian Williams of NBC News. ???Tonight has to be ???horses and bayonets.?????? Reuters called it ???the most memorable catch phrase of the debate.??? Soledad O???Brien of CNN portrayed it as a very ???important moment.???
The problem for Obama is that ???memorable??? doesn???t automatically mean ???good.??? Horses and bayonets became trending topics on Google and Twitter overnight, but a lot of that was due to mockery. (And some of the mockery wasn???t really directed at the point Obama was trying to make ??? it was general merriment from people who found the inclusion of cavalry in a 2012 presidential debate amusing.) One of the best sarcastic responses came from a media figure, Fox News anchor Brett Baier, who said via Twitter: “Horses and Bayonets? This from a guy who wants us to go back to Windmills and Trains.”
Obama???s actual point was a condescending sneer about how technology has evolved to the point where military strength can be purchased at a deep discount, which is both dangerously wrong-headed ??? even the most advanced aircraft carrier can only be in one place at a time ??? and unwelcome in the ears of Virginia voters, who have major shipyards to think about. Both Obama and Virginia???s Democrat Senate candidate, Tim Kaine, may come to rue the horses-and-bayonets ???moment.???
Update: One other bit of post-debate fact-checking that’s going to hurt Obama concerns the status of forces agreement in Iraq. Once again, Romney’s presentation of this issue was correct, and Obama’s statements were false.