The lack of impact of the two debates shows that this election will depend on the fundamental ideological variances between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
Many have pointed to Romney’s rise following the first debate in Denver as an illustration that the debates do have an effect. However, Romney’s victory was a landslide to a degree never before seen in modern politics. Nate Silver at the New York Times calculated that on average since 1976, the challenger has always gained an average of 1.5% in the polls against the incumbent. Going by his increase of about 3-4%, Romney’s actual gained lead was 1.5-2.5%. Romney’s post-debate gains are about equal to Walter Mondale in 1984, and are only a bit greater than George Bush’s in 2000 or John Kerry’s in 2004 – Bush gained 3.3% and Kerry 3%. Romney’s gains can be attributed even less to his debate performance when it is considered that unlike many of the other challengers over the past 36 years, he was recovering from a narrative of consistent gaffes and plummeting numbers – one making it difficult for any undecided voter to view him as a valid candidate to support. The post-debate narrative of success erased this one of failure entirely, which it would have done regardless of his performance – meaning that much of his post-debate gains were really post-slump gains coinciding with any gains due to his performance. The stories following the debate were going to be about the debate no matter what, especially since Romney had been disciplined and slip-up-free since the “47%” video. Thus when we see the Romney bump we see the net difference between the debate bump and the slump of before, not just the benefit of the debate in a vacuum. When the previous tailspin is taken into account, the debate was about as much a boon for him as any other recent solidly won first debate.
However, the first debate was a landslide. In a display of bipartisanship that many Americans would prefer to be taking place in Washington, poll firms, pundits, and politicians of every stripe agreed that Governor Romney had established himself as an energetic, experienced, and intelligent alternative to the President while the President had appeared tired. When Americans who watched the debate were polled, Romney led Obama by a full 52% - 10% more than the greatest lead in history so far, Clintons 42% lead over George H.W. Bush. Thus Romney’s gain should be by far one of the greatest in history, when it simply is nowhere close. The debates have proven a highly inefficient means of converting success into voter gains. The same has been proven with Obama’s near-invisible gains after a close victory in the second debate, but this is harder to see than with the contrast between Romney’s performance and gains.
Another area in which neither candidate can gain a real advantage is campaign spending. While in 2008 Obama began his lead on McCain around when McCain ran out of funds, this year both candidates have more money than they can ever run out of, and spending has reached the point of saturation. The spending that matters right now is organizational spending to obtain registration for voters and to turn those registered voters into likely voters. Admittedly, this is spending ignored by polls, which don’t change their “likely voter” models to fit campaign spending in terms of the weighting of variables. The spending that polls are tracking has been remarkably ineffective; while an Obama spending advantage has correlated to an increasing Obama lead, Obama gains can be tracked to specific events not relevant to a spending advantage. Yes, there is a value in having an established image of each candidate – but the Romney vision of Obama has been established over four years of a bad economy and the Obama vision of Romney has gotten full press from a media eager to exploit every Romney flaw established over the past six decades – if not because of a liberal bias, then simply because of the wide range and ridiculous magnitude of his mistakes. Both candidates have established their narratives, and every independent is aware of them. The issue truly is which narrative will resonate better with voters.
The biggest illustration of the purity of the race can be seen in the gaffes that have been repeated. During 2008, topics that obtained a lot of time included many that had little to do with the policies that would be enacted in office by either candidate – for example Barack Obama’s association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, and John McCain forgetting how many houses he owned. The gaffes that have stuck to candidates this year have had roots in policy. For example, Romney’s “47%” lines implied an economic policy that would lack a social safety net. Obama’s tired, weak, and distracted debate performance paralleled a popular image of him as an unenergetic president, unable to address the economy.
The desire of Americans to vote based on the need for a faster economic recovery can be seen in the lack of emphasis on the recent Benghazi attacks. Foreigners killed American citizens on what was technically American soil, and these foreigners are yet to be apprehended and were working for a group yet to be identified. While Obama’s campaign has taken the stance that the attacks should not be politicized, Romney could be making the attacks a close parallel to the Iranian Hostage Crisis in showing the weakness of the incumbent and Obama could be using the attacks as an opportunity to show leadership and strength. Neither have done so to any success because while the attacks can compete with a scandal, they cannot compete with the genuine need for Americans to find economic solutions.
Overall, voters are more-and-more responding to genuine economic arguments to a degree unrecognized by many pundits cynically expecting voters to respond to each latest flub or headline. It has taken historic shifts to produce traditional gains in debates, and historic spending has produced few gains at all. Easy access to information, coupled with the depth of the recession, has left the greatest gap between the candidates the only gap there ought to be in a democracy: that of ideology.