When a Terrible Debate Performance Is Better Than a Bad One

Obama’s debate performance was universally seen as a disaster, but having his performance viewed so negatively may not be such a bad thing. Given that a candidate is going to decisively lose a debate, it might better to lose it extremely decisively — that is, for 99% of the public to think you lost rather than 70%.

To see how this could happen simply look at the reaction to Obama’s performance. There’s the New Yorker cover that portrays him literally not showing up. There are pundits questioning his preparation and alertness, as well as those speculating about whether he was playing it too safe. However, because Obama is deemed to have been defeated so badly you don’t see the narrative that he put his best policy arguments up against Romney’s best arguments and lost. (Some have made the case that Obama lost because he has a tough record to defend, but that’s not the dominant narrative.) The result is that undecided voters who believe Romney was the victor may come to see that victory with a caveat — “Yeah, well, apparently Obama didn’t really give it his best shot.”

When a candidate has a poor but nondescript performance they don’t necessarily get that mulligan. Imagine if Obama decisively lost the debate in the eyes of undecided voters, non-partisans, and independents, but performed well enough that the 40% of the country that makes up his base claims he won. In this scenario those undecided voters are much more likely perceive Obama as losing despite giving his best effort and making the best case for his policies. Their positive judgments of Romney are likely to be marginally longer lasting and they’ll be somewhat less likely to have their perceptions from the first debate replaced by those from the second debate.

Obviously the absence of a good counterfactual makes it impossible to know if it’s better to bomb a debate than simply get beaten. But it will be interesting to see if heading into the second debate the media narrative grants Obama a do-over and provides a “this is a chance to show the real Obama” storyline.

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