Americans on Tuesday night watched what was the most ferocious presidential debate ever. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney circled and interrupted each other, jabbed fingers, got into each other's space, and exchanged verbal body blows for 90 minutes at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
Yet it did not change the campaign's dynamic. President Obama won the postdebate polls, but he's losing the argument.
In CNN's insta-poll, 46% said Mr. Obama did the "best job" while 39% chose Mr. Romney. And in CBS's survey of uncommitted voters, 37% said Mr. Obama won the night while 30% gave it to Mr. Romney. But to reverse the GOP challenger's momentum, the president required nearly as big a victory Tuesday as Mr. Romney had last week. He didn't get it.
In CNN's poll after the first debate in Denver on Oct. 3, the network found that 67% felt Mr. Romney had won while only 25% picked Mr. Obama. Mr. Romney's 72% to 20% victory over Mr. Obama in the Gallup survey after that debate was the biggest margin in the polling organization's history.
In his strong presentation in Denver, Mr. Romney did two things that altered, perhaps permanently, the race. By ticking off what viewers saw as a common-sense, practical agenda and then explaining what each of its five elements would do to improve the lives of all Americans, Mr. Romney came across as a man with a plan. He also demolished the image nurtured by the Obama campaign of him as a heartless, selfish plutocrat.
This week, Mr. Romney continued explaining how his agenda would help all Americans—especially the middle class—rise and prosper. He was at his strongest when indicting the president's economic record.
After the debate, CNN found that Mr. Romney came out ahead on the essential question of who was better for handling "the economy" with 58% to Mr. Obama's 40%. This was an improvement from Denver, when the Romney advantage was 55%-43%. So Mr. Obama continues to run behind on the all-important argument over who offers the better prospect of a stronger economy, greater prosperity and serious deficit reduction.
This goes to the essential flaw in Team Obama's strategy. The president and his advisers have been so intent on disqualifying Mr. Romney that they have done a miserable job defending the president's record and virtually nothing to frame a second-term agenda. Meanwhile, according to Pew Research Center polls conducted in mid-September and early October, the president's favorability ratings among all voters have declined to 49% from 55%.
The apparent boomerang of the attack ads may explain the sudden disappearance this week of the Obama television ads smashing Mr. Romney. They've been replaced with gauzy spots heralding Mr. Obama's great success in restoring prosperity and jobs. These claims are so at odds with reality that even Morgan Freeman's sonorous voice-over can't rescue these "Morning in America" wannabe ads.
Gallup reported on Sept. 9 that only 30% of the public is "satisfied" with the condition of the country. The Oct. 13 Washington Post/ABC poll found that 56% think the country is "off on the wrong track." The rates of unemployment, second-quarter GDP growth and labor-force participation are all worse than they were three weeks before any modern presidential re-election. Mr. Obama's status-quo, stay-the-course campaign will be a hard sell with a public that wants change.
That's reflected in polling data. Mr. Obama led 49.1% to 45% in an average of national polls conducted about one week before the candidates' first debate. In national surveys taken since then, Mr. Romney averages 47.4% to Mr. Obama's 46.9%. The Republican candidate continues to lead among independent voters. In eight recent national polls, an average 49% of the likely independent voters say they support Mr. Romney, while 37% favor Mr. Obama.
On Monday Mr. Romney reached 50% in Gallup's daily tracking of likely voters—something Mr. Obama has not yet been able to do. No other presidential candidate has been at 50% or higher at this point in the race in this survey and lost.
The movement in the race is reflected by rising poll numbers for Mr. Romney in at least 20 states, including the battlegrounds of Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Iowa and Pennsylvania. Mr. Romney is now ahead in the first three.
The Denver debate changed the campaign in a way no other presidential debate ever has. What happened two nights ago at Hofstra University was entertaining and at times illuminating, but Mr. Obama needed a knockout. What he got instead was something closer to a draw.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, October 18, 2012.