My reaction to the Wednesday’s debate was probably in line with what most in the media thought: President Obama played it relatively safe while Mitt Romney was able to argue successfully for some of his positions, especially his views on taxation. The media described President Obama’s strategy as the “rope-a-dope,” because the President generally held his punches except for the most effective moments and let Romney hammer him for the rest of the time. This view is, of course, an oversimplification, but appears to be fundamentally accurate. The question then becomes why would President Obama choose a strategy that would result in what Nate Silver called a “field goal” for Mitt Romney?
I believe the President is pursuing the rope-a-dope, not just for the single debate, but as his strategy for the remaining 32 days of the election. It is probably best to think about the strategy as a function of the media narrative. The President was leading in the polls before the first debate by about two to four points, and the narrative of the President’s likely victory was dominant.
Because of Obama’s favored position, the inevitable story then becomes the “Mitt Romney comeback,” as this narrative serves to make the horse race of the election more interesting to media consumers. All it would take for this narrative to appear would be some qualitative rise in the polls for Romney or a mistake on behalf of President Obama, both of which are likely to occur before Election Day.
If the Obama campaign thought this were the case, it could have made a conscious decision to control the location and the scope of the story by having the President play this debate incredibly safe, knowing he would take a slight loss but nothing disastrous would happen in the polls. This would likely create a small poll bump of a point or two for Romney, which is consistent with bumps for presidential challengers after the first debate.
The advantage of inducing the narrative of the Romney comeback is that it happens 32 days before the election and not five or 10. A solid performance from President Obama in the last two debates would help the President recover and transform the narrative to one that favors him. The last two debates, after all, focus more on foreign policy — an area where President Obama is seen as far stronger than Mitt Romney, who said that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the United States.
Now, President Obama only has to beat recently lowered expectations for the last two debates, making it easier for him to appear victorious in the debates that matter more, the ones that occur closer to Election Day.
This hypothesis is difficult to test, and we will probably never know if President Obama intentionally underperformed in this debate. However, his performance in later debates should give us more of an indication of his overall end-game strategy, so perhaps we will be able to understand what occurred during the first debate at that time.
photo of President Barack Obama by Peter Souza