Unless you are living under a rock, you have noticed that the polls jumped for Mitt Romney after the first debate. Who cares if he “won” or not–the polls now show a leap. He’s ahead in some, tied in others, close in still others. There has been a change in the race. Democrats are running around in circle, knocking into each other, and falling down like extras in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. What’s happening?
I am not a polling expert, so I will try to stick to what I perceive to be a dynamic in the current narrative of the election–the totality of talk generated by the election at this point. What I am seeing and hearing is something familiar.
What happened after Romney’s performance in the first debate reminds me of the dynamic that unfolded in the GOP primary. In fact, without statistics or data to cloud my certainty, I will just come out and say that it is the same dynamic: the polls are not reflecting the state of the race, but are merely rewarding a single breakout performance by a candidate perceived as challenging the front-runner.
During the GOP primary, the effect of the breakout performance tended to dissipate after a single news cycle, after which polling for the candidate who most recently benefited from this dynamic would settle down to reflect more accurately where the candidate stood.
Looking back just briefly, every candidate in the GOP primary went through this dynamic except Huntsman, Pawlenty, Perry, and Romney who, to my recollection, never managed breakout performances.
The rest of the candidates did, however, and as a result, each of them shot to the top of the polls. Bachman, Cain, Gingrich, Paul, and then, finally, Santorum.
Most of these breakout performances happened in the debates, which were less forums for voters to understand the candidates positions than arenas for candidates to step up and steal the show.
Two things are worth noting about the dynamic of the breakout performance: (1) this was not the case in GOP primaries of the recent past and (2) the breakout performance and its short-term impact on the polls drove Mitt Romney near close to insane.
The last GOP primary had pretty much the opposite effect. Think Fred Thompson. Leading up to McCain’s nomination, an endless series of candidates were talked up prior to their announcements as if they were the next big thing. Their polling spiked as a result of this early chatter. Then, once they showed up in the debates, they tanked. To a limited extent, this “chatter” dynamic also took shape around the Perry and Pawlenty bids for the GOP nomination this time around. Both of them had significant chatter prior to running and then proved to be so boring (Pawlenty) or brainless (Perry) that their polling tanked shortly after their first appearances.
Curiously, Santorum was the only candidate who was able to leverage his breakout performance in the debates into a steady place in the polls.
And this brings us to another issue about breakout performances this year: they seem to be a key element of a whittling down process in a situation where status quo candidates have fairly high negatives, leading to an “anybody but this guy” situation.
As long as he or she is interesting and pushes our buttons, we are so desperate we will be all in after the first card gets flipped.
And so we come to Romney.
Remember, that in the absence of a breakout performance himself, Romney was only able to beat Santorum because he had a better ground game which enabled him to outlast him in the nomination math.
Romney won the nomination, in a sense, by keeping up the ground game no matter how much enthusiasm was driving momentum in Santorum’s camp. What enabled him to do this was–you guessed it–money: mountains and mountains of money.
Fast forward to the first debate between Romney and President Obama.
Heading in to that debate, Romney’s campaign was sinking pretty much the same way that Gingrich’s campaign was prior to his breakout performance. Romney had made an endless string of gaffes and offensive pseudo-policy statements, had embarrassed himself on the international stage, and had changed positions so many times that the main story about him in the media was a “who is Mitt” meme. He was sinking.
Somebody–probably his family–must have reminded him prior to the Denver debate of what had happened in the GOP primary. They must have told him that he was, by the numbers, the “winner” of the nomination. And yet, candidate after candidate came up and stole that inevitability from him with a brash, obnoxious debate performance that pushed all the right buttons about how much the GOP base hates everything the Democrats stand for.
Romney did not view the debate against Obama, in other words, as a forum for discussing his policy positions, but as an arena in which to stage a breakout performance. Romney harnessed the very dynamic that almost robbed him of the nomination. And the polls rewarded him for it.
Is Romney “winning” as a result?
I doubt it. I really doubt it. But the larger question may just be whether the White House can muster its own break out performance from Obama in the next debate and, if not, whether they can, as a final resort, out last Romney in the electoral math. By which I mean: is Obama’s mountain of money bigger than Romney’s.
Remember, Romney was never able to muster a breakout performance during the primary race. He could not do it because he was committed to a rational view of the universe of that race. He believed that people were deciding who to support based on the past experience of the candidate and whether or not they were acceptable to “centrist” swing voters (fill in your own definition on that one).
Romney was wrong, but his war chest was so big he could afford to be wrong and still win.
Now, with one month left in the general election, Romney has decided that the swing voters no longer want him for his resume, but just for his own particular rendition of “I’m the GOP and this is my crazy.”
Romney’s breakout performance was basically just him never giving in to anything the President said–or anyone said for that matter. Dominating the stage, not being pushed around, even if he had to lie left, right, and center to get that done. Bully, bully, bully! Bow, curtain call–pause–the crowd goes wild. Poll bounce.
The difference between the GOP candidates that did this to Romney and Romney doing this to Obama is a matter of degree. Each GOP breakout candidate was actually selling something concrete–crazy, but concrete. Romney is not actually selling anything in particular except brashness. He has completely emptied his policies of any facts, has changed positions on social issues, is running against healthcare reform even though it is a larger version of his own policy, and so on.
Not even someone as self-serving as Gingrich or as unhinged as Bachmann was able to completely ditch their moral anchors the way Romney has. And so his breakout performance takes us a few steps into the unknown, even if it is familiar.
In the final analysis, of course, the Obama campaign probably has the best numbers from their own pollsters to tell whether or not they can outlast Romney on the electoral map. My guess is that they already know the answer to that question. And if the answer is that they cannot be guaranteed of outlasting Romney–then they have to somehow pull a breakout performance from Obama.
Remember, Barack Obama gave the single greatest breakout performance of any politician in American history. His keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention, arguably, won him the Presidency. But that was a different Obama reaching for a different goal, in a different election dynamic.
As of last week, after one term in office, Obama seemed even more committed to the idea that voters respond first and foremost to lists of data confirming that his policies are working to improve the economy, national security, and our national sense of well-being and security. That is not the candidate mind-set that would be open to viewing a debate as an arena for staging a breakout performance.
But if there was someone who could convince Obama to view the debate on those terms–and there may be–what might that breakout performance look like?
Well, for starters, Obama needs to stop viewing the next debate as a policy forum and start seeing it as a stage he can stand on to hit all the buttons about why Dems find the Republican party of October 2012 to be so incredibly offensive, annoying, and outright dangerous to the future of this country. And he needs to hit them hard.
Stay awake for 48 hours, drink 3 cans of Red Bull–watch the movie Fight Club continuously from now until the next debate. Choose your own training strategy, Mr. President–but choose.
There are many things a candidate can control in an election, but an issue like this breakout performance dynamic is bigger than any candidate or campaign. It cannot be ignored, but must be recognized, dominated, mastered.
And if the President does manage a breakout performance in the next debate, how much bounce will that give him?
It will give him plenty. Can you imagine–can you even imagine how loudly people will cheer and for how long if Barack Obama turns around and gives Mitt Romney a piece of his mind after all the lies and obstruction the GOP has dropped on this country during his administration?
As the kids like to say: ZOMG!!
Open a can of whoopass on Romney’s arrogant, country club keister, Mr. President. Don’t poll test it. Don’t delegate it to Biden. This is your job. You know it will work. You just need to see it, believe it, and step all over it.
And if you do, the polls will fly off the hook, Mitt Romney will be a thing of the past, and millions of Americans will remember that night for the rest of their lives.