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2012 campaign

Why One Bad Debate Sapped Obama's Strength

President Barack Obama during the presidential debate at the University of Denver

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Barack Obama during the presidential debate at the University of Denver

Until just over a week ago, President Obama’s campaign was on the cusp of doing something unprecedented in modern presidential politics: turning the election into a referendum on the challenger, Mitt Romney. Why is that so special? Because every prior example of an incumbent running for reelection in recent times has wound up being a referendum on the guy in the White House.

Those who run the re-election campaigns for sitting presidents are usually loath to admit this, especially when the preceding four years have not been a runaway success. Obama’s campaign is no different. “Elections are not referendums, elections are choices,” said David Axelrod, his chief strategist, over the summer.

But studies of what compels voters to go to the polls make it clear that Axelrod is wrong. Most Americans, in elections involving an incumbent president, decide on the basis of performance. This is true for members of both parties (and possibly also for independents, although the polling I’ve seen neglects to include them).

When George W. Bush ran for a second term in 2004, most Republicans told Pew Research that they were casting their vote “for” Bush, rather than against John Kerry. However, two-thirds of Democrats reported that they were voting “against” Bush, rather than for Kerry. The election was a clear referendum on Bush.

To varying degrees, this pattern repeats itself in every recent race involving an incumbent. When Bill Clinton ran in 1996, most Democrats voted for him, rather than against Bob Dole; most Republicans voted against Clinton, not for Dole. In 1992, when George H.W. Bush was running, Democrats cast their votes against him, not for Clinton. Bush’s supporters, on the other hand, were motivated to re-elect their own man.

Last fall, the presidential race appeared to be shaping up exactly as you’d expect, based on this history—as a referendum on Obama. In October, Pew found that Republicans by a 3-to-1 measure planned to vote against Obama. (That’s one reason why conservative anxiety about whether the party would rally behind Mitt Romney was unfounded.) Democrats were going to vote for Obama. And Romney’s whole strategy rested upon framing the election as a referendum.

But the relentless, well-funded Democratic attacks that began in the spring—and Romney’s own promenade of missteps—changed that dynamic, as did the improving economy. By September, Romney had abandoned his strategy, conceding that the election was a “choice.” In fact, after the infamous tape surfaced of him disparaging the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax, it was turning into a referendum on Romney.

This would have been an impressive bit of jujitsu had Obama been able to sustain it. But of course he couldn’t. The president’s poor showing in the first debate, and Romney’s crisp and effective contrast, have broken the spell. Now Obama is the one trying to reassure frantic supporters and Romney the one rising in the polls. This suggests the election will revert to something more like the historical mean.

That’s an obvious relief for Romney. It should worry Obama supporters, at least if the last 10 days are any indication. The debate and its aftermath didn’t feature an incumbent cruising to re-election. “When we compared the reaction of swing voters,” Stanley Greenberg, the veteran Democratic pollster, said, “there was a response to what Romney was offering. And, I thought, more a lack of offering anything from Obama at a time when they’re looking for economic change.” Since then, the president has spent most of his time talking about Big Bird and Elmo, rather than his accomplishments or his plans for a second term.

Strangely enough, that’s partly intentional. His advisers have long believed that a weary public has no patience for grand ideas or presidential self-applause. So Obama’s strategy has focused primarily on going after Romney—until last week, with remarkable success.

But Romney’s debate performance and his subsequent revival suggest that voters do have an appetite for big ideas and promises, no matter how vaguely defined. Unless Obama begins to offer a few of his own, there’s little reason to assume that a referendum on his presidency will turn out the way he hopes.

Green is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.

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