Romney's Good Month

Thanks to the debates, he ends October much better off.

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Source: The Wall Street Journal 

In spite of the usual positioning and posturing by each candidate, we did manage to learn quite a bit from this month's presidential and vice presidential debates.

Probably the most significant lesson is that debates can make a difference. When many voters are just starting to focus on the campaign, debates are often the first time they'll see the candidates without the filter of the media or the cover of advertising. A significant portion of the mainstream media went out of its way to tell us a Mitt Romney would be bad for middle-class and lower-income families. The Obama campaign and related PACs spent millions telling us Mr. Romney was an insensitive plutocrat who destroyed jobs. One political action committee's infamous ad even went so far as to imply that Mr. Romney was to blame for a woman's death.

Once people saw Mr. Romney on stage and one-on-one with the president, they could make up their own mind. A large number apparently liked what they saw. Instant polls said Mr. Romney won the first debate overwhelmingly. Polls over the next few weeks continued to swing, sometimes significantly, toward Mr. Romney. His net favorability rating went up (from -1 to +6), his standing in national polls went up (from down by four to up by just less than one in the RealClearPolitics average), and his standing in battleground states improved.

If the rule of presidential debates is that a challenger has to make the electorate see him as presidential material, it is certainly safe to say Mr. Romney easily cleared that bar. Of course, his supporters should temper their elation with the knowledge that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush suffered poor debate performances before going on to win re-election. The power of incumbency can often overcome the damage of a bad debate.

The second interesting lesson of the debates is the way they can influence voters who don't watch them. Sound bites and images of the candidates continue to live long after the stage has been dismantled and the candidates' advocates end their efforts in the spin room. We see clips repeated endlessly on cable news and talk shows, we see blogs and social media extend the debate about the debate. And of course, we continue to see caricatures of the candidates' performances on "Saturday Night Live."

Debates also tell us a lot about where the various campaigns stand and where they think they stand. The vice presidential debate was notable mainly for Joe Biden's ham-handed mockery in an appeal to the liberal base, but it apparently did nothing to move the needle back to President Obama. With his seemingly out-of-place laughs, eye-rolling, and constant interruptions, Mr. Biden really got into the crazy uncle role. We will see how many young and undecided voters like the vice president's behavior and how many just found him to be a boor. And, what does it say that the Obama campaign, at this late stage, felt it had to work to shore up its base instead of expanding its appeal to independents and moderates?

The second presidential debate was mostly a draw, although the fact that Mr. Obama avoided his second straight flop pushed him over the top on style points. Still, it does not seem that this did much to stop the movement of the polls away from the president. Again, what did it say that a candidate's team was relieved and happy merely because their man did not lose overwhelmingly?

Last week's fourth and final campaign debate didn't change any of the Romney momentum over the Obama campaign. It wasn't the Obama disaster of the first debate, or the better Obama performance of the second debate. And it did not produce any movement for Mr. Obama.

The final lesson of the debates is that it is difficult for an incumbent to overcome in a few hours the results of almost four years of his policies. If Mr. Romney does win, pundits' first reaction will be that it was primarily because of the first debate. They'll be wrong. They will be making the mistake of focusing on the symptom instead of the illness. It is Obama's dismal first-term performance that is causing voters who supported him in 2008 to give Mr. Romney a look. Mr. Obama made it clear he would give us more of the same, while Romney laid out a very different path.

A lot can happen in the next week, and the momentum can swing either way. But if the last four years and the last four debates have told us anything, it is that the Romney-Ryan path is the one that will do the most to grow the economy, add jobs, reopen the American dream, and restore our nation's standing in the world.