Whatever the actual impact is on the race, the psychological impact cannot be understated. From data we have already, we know that Mitt Romney won the debate by a greater margin than any ever recorded since the first debate polling by Gallup in 1984. That includes the shellacking my old boss, President George W. Bush, got in his first debate as incumbent president in 2004, when he was manhandled by John Kerry. And I can still feel the bruises from that one.
It takes a true beating for a candidate's own supporters to admit, as they are now, that their candidate was trounced. At a time when Romney was on the ropes and completely written off, he turned in the performance of his life. And at a time when President Obama could have easily put the race away with a merely passable performance, he sleepwalked through the exercise.
One of my Democratic counterparts, Steve McMahon, smartly summarized Obama's debacle. He said the president treated the debate like a press conference. Like he was just there to answer questions.
So what's the psychological impact? Well, you have one campaign and candidate revived and full of a newfound confidence that they could actually turn this thing around. And on the other side, you've got a once supremely confident president and campaign that thought they could nail this thing suffering a near-death experience and supporters panicking that the race could actually slip away.
There is still no doubt that the president sits in a commanding position when you look at the electoral map. And while I would argue the jobs report is a mixed bag, there's also no doubt that the unemployment number dropping below 8 percent is good for the president and his campaign. (I do remember, however, when adding twice that number of new jobs at an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent under a different president was thought pitiful.)
But is a decline to 7.8 percent unemployment enough? No matter how the media may hype the number, folks tend to believe what they see around them with their own eyes. And families are worried.
The top issue for 91 percent of the nearly 2,200 U.S. parents surveyed by the Center for the Next Generation is the “lack of jobs that pay enough to support a family.” And, in addition to high anxiety about jobs, the federal debt and runaway college costs, two thirds of parents said they would rather have an extra $10,000 a year over an extra hour a day of uninterrupted, quality time with their children. That is a significant change, a contrast to previous findings when time with children won over money.
I think most people have already made up their minds about the economy and aren't likely to be persuaded much differently about it in the next four weeks.
But I think a lot of people actually saw Mitt Romney for the first time at the debate. He didn’t look like the caricature that had been painted of him. And I think a lot of people liked what they saw, because they saw someone who looked like he'd prepared for a job he really wanted. As opposed to the other guy, who looked like he'd be just as happy to pack his bags.
And for all the gnashing of teeth among Democrats and some media about lack of specifics, particularly about Romney's tax plan—did they take a bathroom break when Romney outlined his idea to create a "capped basket" of deductions for personal income taxes? This is a terrific and very specific, substantive idea. You can fill the bucket with charitable, home-mortgage, or health-care deductions, up to a set cap. You make the decision about which ones to give up or keep. And high-income earners don't get as much of a deduction. That is progressive thinking.
I don't care what the polls show next week about the impact of the debate, because the real net effect has already kicked in and it can't be understated. People tuned into the debates and saw a guy who looked like he could be a president. And it wasn’t the man currently in the Oval Office. And so, Mitt Romney is off the ropes and lives to fight another 31 days.