Who Won the Debate Tonight: Romney is Winner for the Media, Big Loser is Moderator Jim Lehrer


Editor's Note: This represents instant analysis of the presidential debate on Wednesday night. For the author's thoughts in the hour immediately before the debate began, see here.

[To see who won the third and final presidential debate, see here]

Here are my first impressions about the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Wednesday evening:

1) The Big Points

- Twitter monitors have found that Romney's Big Bird comment is trending. Clearly he was trying to be funny, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing - e.g., his self-deprecating joke about how Obama and his wife would probably rather not see him on their anniversary was humanizing and clever. The problem with the Big Bird quip, though, is that it was so absurd that it'll no doubt provide the Obama camp with an easy punchline at Romney's expense in the future. Telling a man employed by PBS that he wishes to cut that station's budget may be ballsy, but declaring "I love Big Bird" takes things too far.

- Both candidates were at their wonkiest tonight. The upshot for each of them is that this kind of detail-heavy content is catnip for their bases; I could practically imagine rooms full of Obama and Romney partisans pumping their fists and cheering when their champions mentioned their major points on the tax code, health care policy, job creation, education, etc. (and no doubt thinking those "truths" will certainly win them the election). At the same time, studies have shown that people who are that familiar with policy minutiae have already made up their minds as to which candidate they're going to support. To win over swing voters - the ones who aren't already determined to vote for Obama or Romney - you need to cut through the talking points and heavy data and speak to a fundamental truth even the other side couldn't deny. Ronald Reagan did it during his debate with Jimmy Carter when he asked voters if they were better off than they were four years earlier; Bill Clinton did it during his debate with Bob Dole when he reminded everyone of how well they were doing at the time and how they should want to continue it in the future. Neither Obama nor Romney did that tonight.

2) Some Smaller Points

- Jim Lehrer was the big loser tonight. By allowing the candidates to regularly interrupt each other, talk over him, disregard the time restrictions, and even treat him to a gentle chiding or two, he allowed himself to look like he was in over his head. Even he acknowledged this near the end, and although Obama tried to reassure him, it wasn't convincing. This has probably damaged his reputation a little bit.

- Tonally speaking, Romney was belligerent and Obama was deferential. This was to be expected, given that the latter is currently ahead in the polls.

- Romney may have quoted Daniel Patrick Moynihan's immortal line - "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." - but as a man who has read as much as he could get his hands on about Moynihan, I am fairly confident that he would not have thought too highly of Romney.

3) The Bottom Line

- Substantively, Obama won the people who will already vote Democratic, Romney won the people who will already vote Republican, and the swing voters are just as confused as ever.

- Remember that, as I pointed out earlier, the media has a tendency "to try to make political stories as 'exciting' as possible, and as such, usually tend to award 'victory' to whichever participant in a debate was perceived as the 'underdog' going into it." Because Romney has been on the defensive for the past few weeks, they will try to spin this as Obama being on the defensive throughout the debate. That, after all, is the way Romney can have a comeback from his "underdog" story. I expect Romney will experience a brief bounce in the polls from this. Then he'll become the favorite and Obama will be the underdog, at which point the media will use the expectations game at the challenger's expense. Just watch.