Veep Debate has Consequences

Joe Biden mugged, laughed and interrupted.  Paul Ryan was more composed, but perhaps a little geeky.  Both sides firmly believe their candidate won.  And that could be bad news for the Republican ticket.

There is little doubt that Mitt Romney won the first presidential debate last week.  Even Barack Obama’s most ardent supporters had to concede this fact.  Some – read Chris Matthews – reacted as if their team’s ace closer gave up a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.

What caught many less partisan observers by surprise, though, is the extent to which that debate changed the election’s dynamic.  Usually, it takes an outright gaffe to move the needle on horse race numbers.  However, Mitt Romney’s solid and workmanlike performance coupled with Barack Obama’s lack of game revealed just how volatile this electorate is.

In the national Monmouth University Poll released yesterday, 9% of likely voters claim that they changed their vote intention as a result of the debate.  Taking into account this group’s current support, this accounts for up to a 4 or 5 point swing in intended vote over the past week.  That is precisely the size of the shift most poll aggregators have shown since the debate.

It’s worth noting that Pres. Obama’s poll lead peaked at 4 points the week before the debate on both the RealClearPolitics and HuffPost Pollster trackers.  It was already on a downward trend leading into the debate and stood at 3 points on October 3.  However, that downward trajectory accelerated immediately following the debate.

So why won’t the VP debate help the Romney-Ryan ticket or at least maintain the status quo for the Republicans?  Because Thursday’s face-off reinstated the highly charged partisan rhetoric that had dominated this race and was turning off those independent voters who were positively impressed by Romney in the first debate.

During the past week, voters have enjoyed a bit of a hiatus – at least on the national level if not in swing states – of the partisan flame-throwing that has characterized this campaign.  Starting with last week’s presidential debate through to Mitt Romney’s recent stump speeches, we have seen a more moderate campaign theme from the Republican side while the Democrats have been forced into a defensive posture.

The VP debate now gives both sides’ supporters permission to re-engage in the “My guy is right, your guy sucks” line of attacks that only serve to turn off voters in the middle.  These are the voters whom Romney tentatively won over last week.  But they are not fully committed to him.

If the campaign returns to 24/7 partisan bickering – as I sense it will – those voters will likely desert Romney.  They will either stick with the devil they know or choose not to vote at all.  In this scenario, the incumbent benefits.

Paul Ryan may have held his own and Joe Biden may have been off-putting.  But the end result is that we are likely back to the campaign we saw before the first presidential debate.