Obama ‘won’ debate simply by not losing

Woody Allen once joked that “80 percent of success is just showing up” and by that rubric President Obama achieved a small triumph during Tuesday night’s second presidential debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Of course, this is not to say that the performance was a victory in and of itself, but it was certainly a way for the president to stem the bleeding after their first encounter two weeks ago in Denver.

Let’s face it, most of what makes up a successful political campaign has little to do with the substance of arguments as much as it does with style. Obama lost the first debate not because he was “wrong” or Romney was “right” on an issue, but because the latter was straightforward and assertive while the former was passive.

At this late point in the game you’re no longer campaigning across the board, you’re securing your base and trying to pick off some of the undecideds who still haven’t cast their lot.

Obama is strong in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the West Coast, which gives him around 250 or so electoral votes. Romney is certain to take the South and most of the “flyover country” from Missouri to Montana, totaling somewhere in the neighborhood of 215 electoral votes. The fight is for the handful of battleground states that remain a tossup: Colorado, Virginia, and the grand prize of Florida with its 29 electoral votes. Ohio (18 electoral votes) and Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes) are in there too, but traditionally lean Democratic.

So the challenge these two candidates face has little to do with winning on points as much as it does on style. Whether you agreed with Obama’s arguments or not, you have to concede that he was far more alert and engaged. Romney’s attacks on policy were actually challenged, with Obama giving as good as he got. While both candidates fell into the annoying trap of pointlessly complaining to the moderator about time and turn, it was Romney who came across as more officious and nitpicking. Again, style. Democrats airily point and laugh, Republicans eagerly say “go get ’er Mitt!” but those of us in the middle just roll our eyes.

However, Romney was most successful when he made the main thing the main thing: the people. Forget about assault rifles, or immigration, or stem cells, or offshore drilling, what voters care most about is the economy. The economy is the straw that stirs the drink. If the economy’s good, everything else falls into place. In pointing to the president’s ongoing struggle to reverse the slide of 2008, Romney tapped into a worry we all share. As a man, a husband, a father, and member of a community, my top concern is that we have a chief executive who is doing his utmost to strengthen our country domestically. When Romney spoke to these issues, I was eager to hear more. When he challenged the president’s ineffectiveness, I agreed with several of his points. It is in moments like these where Romney’s business acumen shines forth.

This is where Romney needs to camp out if he wants to unseat Obama. Romney’s attacks on matters of foreign policy came off as amateurish and even somewhat misinformed, as though he was reciting something he’d read off a right-wing blog that day. Thin in facts and heavy on the rhetoric, a major turn-off to “moderate” and “undecided” swing voters like myself.

It was an extraordinary debate in several regards. At times the candidates communicated such potent disrespect—even disdain—for each other that you had to remind yourself that one was the President of the United States and one wanted to be. They contradicted, belittled and spoke over each other in a manner more raw than dignified.

And yet both demonstrated that, for all the shallowness and corruption of our political process, it has given us two finalists of considerable brainpower and firepower. Romney’s ability to riffle through Obama’s record and pluck out the tiniest and most unflattering details was remarkable. Obama’s ability to do that with Romney’s political history was even more so.

A glance around the networks afterwards showed that more right-leaning news agencies scored it a tie, and left-leaning outlets calling it a narrow Obama victory. But Obama won by simply not losing. Romney’s enjoyed a healthy bounce from Obama’s “debacle in Denver” and last night’s debate looks to be what economists would describe as a “correction” in the markets. Obama didn’t win, but he didn’t lose.