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The debate and “gravitational pull”

My general theory of presidential debates is that, whatever happens in the immediate aftermath of a debate, gravity will tend to pull the candidates back to where they started out. Thus, if President Obama went into last week’s debate up by 4 points, say, but after the debate finds himself 2 points behind Mitt Romney, then my general theory would predict that, over time, Obama will recapture most of that territory and pull back into the lead.

There are two reasons why I hold this general theory. First, by the time of the first debate the race has taken shape. Both parties have already bombarded the airwaves, the two national conventions have occurred, and the fundamentals of the race (most notably, the economic situation) are well-established. Thus, the pre-debate poll results should reflect, though not infallibly, the underlying reality of the race. And “underlying reality” should trump a one-off event.

Second, the general theory is supported by past experience. In 2004, George W. Bush had a small but clear lead over John Kerry going into the first debate. Kerry outdebated Bush and the lead essentially disappeared. But as time went on, Bush got most of it back and prevailed on election day. Similarly, in 1984, Ronald Reagan’s poor performance in his first debate with Walter Mondale caused his lead in the polls to diminish. But Reagan went on to win in a landslide.

Will Obama gain back most of the ground he lost to Romney? I would expect him to if he wins one or both of the next two debates. And even if he just holds his own in both, he might well make clear progress.

However, there are several reasons why my general theory may not fit this election all that well. First, I’ve never been convinced that the pre-debate polls fully captured the underlying reality of this race. To the extent they had Obama leading by more than the margin of error, they seemed to fly in the face of the economic data. Moreover, they may have been the product of one-sided advertising, especially in swing states. From what I can tell (and I live in a swing state market — just across the river from Virginia), Obama had been pounding Romney on the air for months with little push back.

I had expected the Republican Convention to alter the dynamic of the race, but it did not seem to. Why? Maybe the Republicans just don’t have a convincing case to make to the public. But the debate undermines this explanation, which was never very convincing. More likely, the Convention’s lack of impact was due to relatively low viewership combined with lack of substance. As we noted at the time, in Tampa the Republicans opted to talk more about how nice and loving they are than about the superiority of their ideas.

Second, Obama’s popularity is built on a cult of personality to a far greater extent than past presidents. And two key elements behind the cult were Obama’s supposed superior intellect and ability to inspire. When Bush debated poorly, voters weren’t pleased. But his performance didn’t fundamentally alter the public’s perception of him — he hadn’t been billed as a great intellect or an inspirational figure. Reagan, on the other hand, was seen as a great communicator. But he had never been considered particularly strong when it came to policy detail.

Romney’s trouncing of Obama thus has the potential to alter fundamentally the way voters perceive the president. This was much less true with Bush and Reagan. And, because inflated perceptions of Obama are part of the “underlying reality” of this race, the debate can be viewed as changing that reality.

Accordingly, there is reason to believe that, unless Obama rallies to defeat Romney in at least one of the upcoming debates, the first debate has irreparably damaged Obama. This doesn’t mean that Obama won’t win back some of the ground he lost; nor does it mean he will lose the election or even that he should be viewed as likely to.

What it does mean, I think, is that Obama cannot rely on time to wash away the impact of the debate or on gravity to pull him back to his prior standing.

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