With several days of polling in the books since Mitt Romney’s dominant debate performance, polls at both the national and state level point to a race that’s tightened up. And this has to be of comfort to the Romney campaign — if eviscerating the president with 58 million people watching wasn’t going to move the needle in favor of Romney, nothing else was likely to. That said, Romney’s debate bounce seems to be consistent with the broader trend of the campaign. That is, Obama takes a lead in the race, Romney claws back, Obama takes the lead again, then Romney closes the gap. At no point in the race has Romney taken a statistically significant lead. At best, he’s tied Obama in the polls. (The most Romney has led Obama in the Real Clear Politics average was by 0.6 percent, and that was a year ago.). So, the question is, how does Romney break through in the last month of the campaign?
Given that debates have been the most effective format for Romney since the primaries, it seems that the outcome of the election will largely depend on whether he can build on his opening debate win with strong performances in subsequent debates. Liberal Jonathan Chait posits that Obama blew his best chance to hit Romney by not challenging him more forcefully in the opening debate. Paul Ryan will do well in the debate against Joe Biden, because, Chait argues, he’s so good at being a phony. Meanwhile, he suggests that Obama won’t be able to attack Romney at the upcoming town hall debate and won’t be able to go after him on domestic policy during their final foreign policy debate. But there are also potential pit falls for Romney. Like Chait, I expect Ryan to have a strong debate this Thursday, though I would say it’s because he’s knowledgeable, articulate, persuasive, optimistic and likable (and because he’s debating Joe Biden). But in general, I don’t think VP debates ever matter, so it really will come down to the remaining two Romney-Obama debates.
Even though the town hall format will make it more difficult for Obama to go on the attack, it also throws another variable into the equation. Questions from “average” voters create the risk that Romney could have a moment that makes him look awkward and out of touch. Of course, Obama could screw up, too, as he’s not as natural at the format as somebody like Bill Clinton. As for the final debate, Romney is more comfortable talking about economic rather than foreign policy issues, where polls show Obama with a clear advantage, which has yet to erode in the wake of Libya news. This isn’t to say that Romney can’t gain ground in subsequent debates. Anybody who watched his stellar performance last Wednesday shouldn’t question his ability to come through in the clutch. But the different formats of the upcoming debates — and the fact that Obama is likely to be more prepared next time – present a new set of obstacles for Romney as he attempts to break through his apparent ceiling in polls and overtake Obama in the final weeks.