No one could understand it. An unpopular president, a sluggish economy, and high unemployment should have ensured that the race would be a cakewalk for the opposition. But when the time came for the contenders to line up, the best they could muster was a pizza tycoon, a philandering 69-year-old, and a cowboy governor with short-term memory loss. Was this the best the Republican Party had to offer? This the party that, since the 1960s denied all but one Democratic president re-election; the party that only two-years prior, had ushered in the greatest swing in Congressional seats since 1938? The candidate that the party eventually chose as its nominee was a man who had, at one point or another, had been for nearly everything he was currently against — Mitt “Flip-flop” Romney? This was going to be ugly.
Then the first presidential debate happened. On October 3 the president, who was considered to be one of the finest orators of modern times, was trounced by Romney, a man most people suspect of being, at least part, machine.
Clearly, Obama had underestimated Romney; he believed the Governor would stick to the far-right positions that he had expressed during the Republican primaries. It did not seem to have occurred to anyone in the Obama administration that the man best defined by switching his views to suit the election might actually switch his views to suit the election. Romney pivoted to the centre and trounced Obama in the first debate.
Then his running mate, the wonkish P90X enthusiast, Paul Ryan, held his own against a titan of the Senate, Joe Biden. And Romney outperformed the President, again and again. The worst he performed in any of the debates was still considered a tie. This was going to be ugly, alright, but now it was ugly for the president.
Romney received an initial surge in the polls after his first debate performance, at one point being as many as seven points ahead of the president. An initial boost is to be expected and can be written off by the incumbent, but while that lead narrowed, Romney still maintained it. If it fell low, it never left the margin of error — the two candidates were tied. At this point in 2008, Obama led John McCain by 7–11 points. What had for most of the race looked like an easy Obama re-election, was now universally considered too close to call. And it was all thanks to the debates.
No one expected Romney to be so knowledgeable, so personable, and so reasonable. Romney converted from the hard-right ideologue he had been during the primaries to a pragmatic technocrat, reminding the American people — and Barack Obama’s campaign — why he won the governorship as a Republican in a state that was 3 to 1 Democrat. Had it not been for the debates, Obama might still be enjoying significant leads.
Romney’s success must be down to the debates because his campaign has been anything but rousing. A crowd chanting “Ryan! Ryan! Ryan!” when Romney takes the stage inspires very little confidence. Similarly, Romney is not known to be very personable, so it is unlikely that all the babies he kissed and hands he shook made a significant impact. The traditional aspects of retail politics were never Romney’s strength, and both he and his family knew this.
“Let Romney be Romney,” his wife and sons told his handlers before the first debate. They did and it worked. Romney is a businessman — he has a mind for minutia and a managerial style. What he is good at — what he has honed over his entire adult life since graduating from Harvard Business and Harvard Law; what he displayed at the Salt Lake City Olympics; and what he did nearly every day in the boardroom at Bain Capital — is sitting people down and explaining to them why his plan is the best. He sells his ideas.
The debates gave Romney a platform that he was used to. He had a captive audience willing to listen to a cost-benefit analysis of his plan and the president’s. He was able to allay the fears of the risk-averse and ensure them that he could provide the greatest product at the lowest price with the least disruption to their daily lives — something Romney has done a thousand times before. While the shareholders’ vote is still to come, right now it looks like Romney may have made the sale.