As expected, the media is casting the Second Presidential Debate as a win for Barack Obama. This is no surprise, not only due to the known bias in broadcast media, but also to keeping the drama alive in the election race. Anyone saying Romney won Tuesday’s debate is essentially saying the election is over. There’s a lot of advertising money to be made or lost on the question of when and how the election is decided, so two losses into the debate series, the media was nearly as desperate for an Obama win as Mister Obama himself. In addition to the media environment, the location and structure of the second debate was heavily weighted in Obama’s favor. While ostensibly designed to provide a forum for ‘undecided’ voters to ask questions from candidates in an open ‘Town Hall’ forum, the facts tell a different story – the location was in New York, a heavily pro-Democrat state, the moderator stated before the debate that she would not agree to the written format for the debate as negotiated by both candidates in advance, the moderator would know all the questions in advance and would select which questions would be asked and when and by whom, and would be in control of how much time each candidate would have to speak, and when.
In the actual debate, the moderator’s bias was immediately evident, as she allowed Mister Obama additional time, refused to allow Mister Romney the opportunity to counter false claims by Mister Obama, failed to apply follow-up questions evenly, and overall showed an appalling partisanship in favor of Mister Obama. Mister Obama was alternately arrogant and disingenuous, and oddly spent more time mis-characterizing Mister Romney’s plans than presenting his own. At several points, Mister Obama ironically bemoaned Romney’s supposed lack of detail, but provided none for his own plans. In the end, however, the Obama Camp failed for a third straight attempt, which may prove to be fatal to their dwindling re-election hopes.
I will freely admit I am biased in Mister Romney’s favor. I also recognize that many on Obama’s side will imagine he won last night. But that’s rather the point. Solid supporters for each candidate cheered their man on last night, but there was no realistic expectation that those voters could be moved. The debate was about the undecided voters, and on that focus Mister Romney won the debate.
First, Mister Obama. The Obama Camp radically changed their campaign strategy after the first Debate disaster, recognizing that Obama’s apparent apathy was devastating to his support from all demographic groups, and recognizing further that Romney’s credibility was skyrocketing from his Debate One performance. This led to a much more aggressive posture and a far more negative approach to the debate. The odd thing about this plan for the second Presidential Debate, is that this was the plan for Mister Biden in the Vice-Presidential Debate last week. For President Obama to repeat the game plan of his Vice-President can only be taken to mean one or more of the following possibilities:
 Enthusiasm by Democrats fell so sharply after the first Presidential Debate, that the new tactic was meant primarily to re-energize Democrats;
 The Obama Camp believed in the negative strategy so much that they abandoned the entire summer campaign strategy;
 The Obama Camp was so unable to get their candidate on message that they simply let him do what he wants.
The polling consensus prior to the first debate was a narrow Obama lead. Between the first Presidential Debate and the Vice-Presidential Debate, the consensus shifted to a narrow Romney lead, and after the Vice-Presidential Debate the lead for Romney increased just a little. As a result, not only did Team Romney win both debates on the matter of voter support, they did so at both the national and battleground state level. It would seem, then, that the negative tactics employed in the Vice-Presidential Debate were unpopular with voters, and therefore a strange choice to repeat in the next Presidential Debate. It is difficult to believe that Mister Obama genuinely thinks he will win using such tactics.
Next, Mister Romney. Romney was less polished in the Second Presidential Debate, but as noted the moderator’s obvious partisan support for his opponent forced him to handle two opponents in the Debate. Mister Romney stayed on message, largely avoided negative tactics except to point out the failure of Mister Obama’s first term, and showed credentials worthy of the office he seeks.
Undecided voters this late in an election are looking for answers on specific issues and questions. Likeability is a factor, but anyone still undecided just three weeks before the election is basically waiting for a specific answer to a critical question. Historically, undecided voters weigh the incumbent’s record against the challenger’s qualifications, and discount spin meant to distract from the key data. That means the undecided voters are not impressed with Mister Obama saying what he wants to do in a second term, and they may not be particularly interested in events perceived as one-off incidents, like the Benghazi attack or the death of Osama bin Laden. Those just don’t move the needle for most voters in the middle.
That means the undecided voters will be eager to hear about Romney’s credentials and Mister Obama’s criticism of them. They already have a good idea how to count Mister Obama’s record for the first term. They will probably ignore talk they consider a distraction from their key questions, but they will probably pay attention to – and dislike – attempts to smear the other opponent; it makes the attacker look petty and dishonest. That’s why ‘gotcha’ video clips and sound bites won’t get much traction with undecided voters, unless the target allows them to indicate there is substance to them.
With this considered, then, the victory by Mister Romney in the Second Presidential Debate becomes obvious. While Mister Obama may have felt good about his performance (as he said he did after the first debate), and his aggressive style may please his core supporters, the blatant bias by the moderator and the character of some questions (really, what objective voter still wants to know about Bush eight years after his last election?) are sure to have displeased genuinely undecided voters seeking information and a few straight answers. With Romney having gained the advantage on all major issues through the first two events, the burden last night was squarely on Mister Obama, who failed to meet the challenge.