The pundits and a majority of uncommitted voters have spoken: according to them, Mitt Romney won the wonky yet substanceless snoozefest that was the first Presidential debate of 2012. We are told that Romney seemed lively, warm and aggressive, and that the President seemed distracted and defensive. Perhaps that's true. The President's neoliberal policy approach and failure to adamantly defend Social Security and progressive budget priorities didn't help. The news media certainly wants a closer horse race between the candidates for ratings, and the snap post-debate poll numbers favoring Romney will help them try to deliver that.
But for all the hype, Mitt Romney still came out the loser tonight for three reasons:
1) The "Big Bird" moment. What debaters look for when they "win" is a moment that can be replayed again and again in advertisements afterward against the opponent. Think Bush's "Hard Work" line in 2004, or Dukakis' lack of emotion over his wife's hypothetical murder in 1988. While Obama may not have outshone Romney on stage, Obama didn't give Romney any of those moments. But Romney did give the President one--and a big one. He directly stated not only that he would fire Jim Lehrer--right in front him--but that he would fire Big Bird, too. Big Bird and PBS instantly became trending topics on Twitter. Watch for the Obama team to do ads highlighting Romney's desire to continue subsidies for big oil and other big corporations while killing Big Bird's job. That will have a much more lasting impression on the race than the 24-hour news cycle generated by the debate itself.
2) Romney just didn't move the numbers as much as he needs to. Let's face it: Mitt Romney is way behind in the polls. Not so much the national polls where's he's 3-4 points behind on average, but in the swing state polls, where he trails by significant margins in most of the states he needs to win--particularly Ohio, but also Wisconsin, Virginia, Nevada and many others. There are precious few paths to the Presidency for Romney that allow him to lose Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada and Virginia, and he's down by at least five points or more in each of those states.
And there are precious few undecided voters left out there--by many accounts less than five percent of the electorate. Which means that Mitt Romney needs to win almost all of the undecideds, particularly in these swing states, for him to have a chance. Even if Romney picks up 2/3 of the undecideds who claim he won the debate tonight--a doubtful figure, given that it almost certainly includes some of the President's natural supporters deflated at his more passive performance--it's still not enough.
3) Romney's lies will come back to haunt him. Part of the reason the President may have been caught off guard was Mitt Romney's hard tack to the center, essentially throwing the modern conservative movement under the bus and pretending that his last year's worth of campaign statements never happened. On every issue from Romneycare to cutting taxes for the rich, the challenger basically pretended that he was the Mitt Romney of 2002 again.
It may be that Romney was trying to shake the etch-a-sketch starting tonight, or it may be that he was trying to win over the undecided voter who pays little attention to news except to watch one or two debates. If the latter, then it won't matter to him how much fact checkers rip apart his statements (for instance, the L.A. Times has three separate sub-headlines reading "Romney repeats false healthcare claims", "Nonpartisan reports challenges Romney tax claims", and "Romney's charge on Medicare misleading").
But the Obama campaign may see fit in the coming weeks to put Romney's sudden pretenses at being a moderate tonight alongside his actual speeches and statements from no more than a few days ago. That will have the effect of reinforcing Romney's image as an ambitious used car salesman who will say anything to get elected. And that will hurt him as voters go to the polls.
In the end, Mitt Romney sacrificed his long-term standing in order to try to fool undecided voters in the immediacy and win a news cycle. And he still didn't win enough voters in the news cycle to make even that short-term strategy successful.