Between now and New Year’s Eve, Colorado Pols is recapping the top ten stories in Colorado politics from the 2012 election year.
On Wednesday, October 3rd on the campus of the University of Denver, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney squared off against President Barack Obama in the first of three debates. Attended by an audience of DU students and a few politically connected non-students, it was a high profile moment for one of our state’s finest educational institutions.
As for President Obama, the consensus view is the Denver debate was not his finest hour.
Our live-blogger covering the event, as our readers know, didn’t think Obama had done all that badly, though we conceded at the time he “left a lot of points on the table and missed some opportunities to really clobber Romney.” It became clear in subsequent days, though, that the public overwhelmingly judged Obama the loser in this debate, appearing detached and even a bit annoyed with having to deal with an over-the-top fiery (and factually challenged) opponent. It has subsequently been acknowledged that Obama’s bookish and unengaging demeanor in the Denver debate was a deliberate strategy–one that is widely judged to have backfired.
In the 50-year history of televised presidential debates, only perhaps one or two are considered to have ultimately impacted the outcome of the election. The most frequently cited example is that of John F. Kennedy demolishing a sickly-looking Richard Nixon on live television in 1960. After Obama’s consensus-view loss to Romney in the first debate, Obama’s poll numbers indeed took a hit: but the fact is that Obama was in the lead prior to this debate, and he went on to win the election. By that simple standard, and despite the massive effort by Republicans to hype it into something more, the Denver debate was just a footnote. A debate performance only makes it into the history books when it relates to the candidate who ultimately won the election.
Does that mean there was no harm done, despite the fact that Obama ultimately prevailed in the election? Of course not, because in all probability there was some amount of electoral harm done–the loss of momentum following the Denver debate, albeit temporary, may well have cost Democrats incrementally down the ticket in other races around the country. Obama’s performance contributed to uncertainty among Democrats–as well as giddy hope among Republicans–that was in both cases unfounded. If the Obama campaign knew they would have more opportunities to take the fight to Romney in subsequent debates, it’s clear in retrospect that they misjudged just how much soft-pedaling they could get away with in Denver.
That said, the end result confirmed the fundamentals of this race, which the presidential debate at the University of Denver did little or nothing to alter.