Kevin Drum reviews a new article from Josh Green, who managed to get his hands on Obama’s internal polling during the 2012 campaign. Drum’s conclusion is that Obama’s first debate was disastrous.
To me, this looks like Obama’s first debate performance had no impact (positively or negatively) on the outcome of the final election (including Obama’s vote share). Clearly Obama’s support in the electorate was roughly 52% prior to the general election. This was primarily the result of a strengthening economy, though the extremity of the GOP primary probably contributed in part. Obama’s support ticked down slightly during the GOP convention and pivot to the general election (to be expected), rose again w/ the Democratic Convention, and over-performed a bit in September as a result of the incompetence of the Romney campaign.
However, even with the messaging failure of the Romney campaign (including the 47% video), Obama’s vote share only ticked up 1-1.5%. These were (in all likelihood) voters that were moderates leaning toward Romney but had been turned off by the lack of moderation in Romney’s campaign (reinforced by the 47% comments). Romney was inevitably going to bring his campaign back to the center at some point in the fall, and the first debate was the obvious time to do that. You can argue that Obama could have more forcefully pointed out the discrepancies between Romney’s campaign policies and the policies he espoused during the first debate, or that Obama should have anticipated ‘moderate’ Romney during the first debate rather than the caricature his campaign had made Romney out to be. However, I strongly suspect that Obama’s performance was irrelevant in this debate–all Romney had to do to regain the percent and a half he lost due to the 47% comments was come out in the first debate and not appear as if he was going to fully dismantle the social-welfare state in his first week in office; he did that, and I think that Obama’s best debate performance couldn’t have prevented the reversion to the mean.