I like to look for gut-based analysis from people smarter than I am, consider what they think, and then use my own instincts to decide what makes sense. Based on what little I've seen since last night, there are only two things that really mattered.
The primary reason that Mitt Romney did well last night is that he finally abandoned the fake cloak of extremism that he'd adopted to win the GOP primary. Romney's argument that he'd better work across the isle because he's already done it in Massachusetts was central to that transformation, and I'm sure will be ignored by everyone in the media and pundit class. Romney was able to work well with Democrats in Massachusetts because he himself governed like one. This is a man who once said that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land and should not be overturned, that a woman's right to choose was important to him and that he'd fight for it, and he even said he was more pro-gay rights than Ted Kennedy.
The problem for Republican voters is that all of that was true -- while Romney was governor -- and that's why he was able to work with Democrats on RomneyCare. It's not so much that Romney was a transpartisan Republican able to work across party lines, so much as that he simply had a lot of things in common with the Democratic agenda back then. And Romney wisely embraced that side of himself in the debate which made it in some ways, more of a primary debate than a general election contest.
Romney made the argument he should have been making all along, because it's intellectually honest and something that independents and moderate Democrats can at least respect. Or at least he went half way. RomneyCare, like it's national version, ObamaCare, is inherently good and necessary law. Romney's primary objection is that the federal government shouldn't be involved in such things, only states should. There is both a legal and ideological underpinning to that argument, and while the legal facet failed in the courts, the ideological aspect is consistent with the core beliefs of the Republican Party. Romney made that part of the argument last night, and that's to his credit.
Along the same lines, Romney didn't argue that taxes for the rich should be cut because it's theft and immoral, which is Paul Ryan's belief via Ayn Rand and other such morons. That is every bit as dishonest as arguing that everything about ObamaCare is wrong and awful on its face, in light of RomneyCare. By focusing on tax cuts for the middle class (not really in his campaign plans) as an engine for economic growth, Romney made the same (failed) argument that Republicans have been making since Ronald Reagan.
It's an appealing, populist argument, and those can win elections. Even if they've been proven time and again to be wrong. All things considered, that's a good policy argument for Mitt Romney to adopt. It sounds good to voters, especially brain-dead independents**. It's a rather bullet proof claim that you can make in a debate that can't be easily refuted without your opponent spending an hour giving an economics lecture. That may result in a win for your opponent in a technical contest, but in the world we live in, sexy beats smart. And telling voters that cutting their taxes can also create jobs, even if it's a bald faced lie, looks pretty sexy and appealing.
Romney was more truthful to what he believes last night, and what Republicans used to believe before say, 2003, and that's a brand of Republican that Americans used to really like. It's why Republicans did well in Congress during the Clinton administration and why George W. Bush was a two-term President. The sly populist liar trumps the American Taliban, in other words.
Put another way, conservative voters are paradoxically going to be extremely happy today because their candidate "sounded like a moderate Republican former Governor of Massachusetts", and it made him a more attractive candidate.
Barack Obama didn't seem to do well because he abandoned the media strategy that got him to where he was before the debate began. Just about everyone noticed that Obama didn't bring up Bain Capital to attack Romney on jobs, even though polls have shown that that strategy has been very successful, especially in swing states. He didn't bring up Romney's controversial 47% statements, which soured real independents**. He didn't bring up the GOP's consistently poor record on women's issues or immigration. And with the weak moderation, he could have pivoted to any of these issues at-will and got away with it.
In other words, Barack Obama went back to being a post-Clinton era centrist Democrat that's afraid to punch below the belt, even if someone deserves it, that won't stand behind what they really believe in.
The only question is why he did that. Nate Silver (one of the smart people I was talking about) noted that Obama said little that would show up on YouTube, or make for good TV entertainment analysis. That makes sense. Obama knows how Romney's big mouth has gotten him into trouble time after time, and knows that Romney has been running behind all year. Romney has lead a national poll here and there, but Obama has lead over 80% of them going back to December, and Romney has never lead in enough states to beat Obama in the electoral math.
No electoral projections will have been updated today to take into account the debate, and won't for at least three days. So this is what Romney had to overcome *before* the debate (270 needed to win):
Nate Silver: Obama 319.3 - Romney 218.7
TPM: Obama 332 - Romney 191
CNN: Obama 237 - Romney 191
RCP: Obama 269 - Romney 181
Pollster: Obama 290 - Romney 191
Some of these projections have tossups, and some don't. Those that don't are the ones showing Obama with over 300 electoral votes, because Obama is currently leading in every tossup state except North Carolina.
Something that was very under-discussed heading into this debate was how far behind Mitt Romney was in the electoral college, and therefore how much higher the burden was on him to "win" the debate by a greater degree. It is not meaningful to say or think that Obama and Romney would be helped or harmed to the same degree by winning or losing by the same margins. Obama winning the debate soundly would have changed very little because Obama is already winning the election quite soundly in all the metrics that matter. Romney winning the debate will have benefited him much more, relatively speaking, but overall not that much, because Romney has so much ground to make up.
Consider this: Nate Silver figures that a sound debate win can shift national polls by about three points. But his model projects a 5 point win in the national popular vote for Obama in November. An Obama debate win is like adding insurance runs in baseball. It's nice, but it's not necessary. An 8 point win is just as good as a 5 point win. The result remains the same. But a Romney debate win would narrow the margin from 5 points to 2 points, making the race more susceptible to noise, unforeseen events, and a strong closing argument, and therefore goes a long way towards closing that gap and making the contest more competitive.
At the state level though, it seems to matter less, because Romney is so far behind. I don't agree with CNN's electoral map (less so than before) on their choice of tossups, as Obama has pulled ahead by more than 9 points in Ohio in some recent polls and is looking stronger in some other swing states well outside the margin of error. If you give Obama every swing state where he's leading in the aggregate, and do the same for Mitt Romney, CNN's very conservative (not politically) map gives you a 332-206 Obama win. For this debate to change the outcome of the election, forget the national popular vote and national polls. Mitt Romney would have to take a lead in some or all of the following states: Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Florida, and still win North Carolina.
Here are the aggregate polls, just before the debate:
Nevada: Obama +6.9
Colorado: Obama +4.6
Iowa: Obama +4.5
Wisconsin: Obama +8.3
Ohio: Obama +6.3
New Hampshire: Obama +7.4
Virginia: Obama +2.2
Florida: Obama +1.9
North Carolina: Romney +0.8
That is why you see projections without tossups showing Obama with 320-330 electoral votes, and Romney with basically the same number as he had with them, about 190-200. If you give Obama every swing state where he's leading by at least 3.5 points (a typical margin of error), and give Romney the rest even if he's losing in those states and has all year, Obama still wins (290-248).
It's a lot harder to move a state poll than it is to move national polls. National polls have more noise, less knowledgeable pollsters, and are less constrained by static demographics. Whereas many state polls are conducted by local groups with much more accurate information about local demographics and state demos don't always trend in line with national demos. I don't know how far Mitt Romney would have to move national polls to win the election, but at this rate, winning the popular vote may not do the job. If Romney moves the national poll by 3 points, as Nate Silver suggests may happen based on historical precedent, and state polls move exactly the same (they'll almost certainly move less, if at all), he'd only increase his lead in North Carolina, and flip Florida and Virginia.
Yet the results would remain the same. Obama wins 290-248.
More detailed analysis is required. Any state with an unemployment rate above the national average may have found a strong debate performance on the economy by Romney persuasive, whereas a state with 5% or less unemployment and an Obama lead of at least 3 points may simply be unwinnable at this point.
I'd really like to wait and see what the national and state polls say in the middle of next week, ones that cover the debate and the September job report due out on Friday. More so the state polls. If the debate is anything like the August job report, then it won't matter at all in state or national polls. If it's different, then we've got a lot of work to do figuring out why, because that'll probably tell you who is going to win this election beyond what we already know (which is quite a bit).
**Brain dead independents are independents who haven't decided if they'll vote for Obama or Romney, and will flip a coin practically any election, despite the stark differences between their visions for our collective future, who too often eschew policy concerns for superficial popularity and treat elections like a personal grooming accessory they can use to improve their self image.
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As for fact checking, you'll probably see the usual fake balance where these sites pick an equal number of lies, distortions, and truths by each candidate to "be fair", giving the false impression that one person didn't lie significantly more than the other. To avoid that, pay attention to two things. The biggest policy debates were over taxes and Medicare, so watch out for fact checks on those, absorb the substance of them, and try to ignore superficial counts.
Especially pay attention to taxes. Mitt Romney is going to get hit hard and repeatedly over his tax arguments, because the math for cutting $5 trillion in taxes without ballooning the deficit simply doesn't add up. This is probably the most ignored story of the last decade, the GOP's constant whining about the deficit while supporting policies that create and enlarge it. The deficit argument between the GOP and Democratic Party always has been (other than Clinton) been about which of the two gets to benefit from doing it. The only substantive difference is that Democrats haven't made a living out of lying about it.