Feb. 11, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Reverting to the Norm: The Race Narrows

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

In labeling Romney a “loser” in the debate, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote the former Massachusetts governor “struggled to differentiate how his foreign policy would differ from what Obama has pursued over the past four years.”

My own reaction on Monday night to the question of who won the debate was very different: Ask me in a few days, after a handful of reliable surveys show how the public evaluates the candidates. Then I’ll have some idea who won.

Yes, the president probably “won” the debate on points if a debating society scored the result.

But political debates aren’t academic exercises where students receive good grades for performing the way their textbooks or professors say they should. And they aren’t high school wrestling matches where the aggressor scores points and automatically wins the match.

Debates are about improving a candidate’s chances of winning an election, and it was far from clear on Monday evening how, or whether, the debate would affect voters’ intentions.

For example, I’m skeptical that Romney needed to “differentiate” himself from the president on foreign policy. If Romney wins the election, it is likely to be because of the economy, not foreign policy.

If that is true, he simply needed to demonstrate to voters — not to Joe Klein — that he could handle national security and defense issues capably, much as Reagan had to do in 1980.

Polling immediately after the debate certainly wasn’t decisive, and “quickie” polls should always be viewed skeptically, as should any survey results gathered during or immediately after a major event.

Still, it’s clear that since the first week in October, both the national polls and swing-state polls have shown Romney’s percentage of the vote growing and the president’s slipping. The national polls are about even.

This week, I went back to the 2004 and 2008 results in the key states to see where Obama and George W. Bush outperformed their national numbers and where they underperformed. I also looked at how strongly they outperformed or underperformed. The results are interesting, though I don’t suggest they are predictive.

Obama did not do as well in Virginia, Florida and North Carolina as he did nationally (in terms of his margin of victory, according to CQ Press’ America Votes 2007-2008), while Bush had a larger margin in the three states than he did nationally over John Kerry (D).

Obama won nationally in 2008 by 7.2 points, but he carried Virginia by 6.3 points, Florida by only 2.8 points and North Carolina by just three-tenths of a point. Yes, he carried all three, but his margins were worse than his national margin.

Similarly Bush won re-election in 2004 by 2.4 points, but he carried Virginia by 8.2 points, Florida by 5 points and North Carolina by 12.4 points.

On the other hand, Obama outperformed in Iowa, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, while Bush did worse in all three than he did nationally. Obama carried Iowa by 9.5 points, Wisconsin by 13.9 points and New Hampshire by 9.6 points. Bush lost all three states, albeit very narrowly.

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