It's the economy, stupid- James Carville, 1992
Twitter and the blogs are alive with hand wringing last night and this morning about "Romney's missed opportunities". He "wiffed" on Libya. To hear all the pundits talk, you would think Romney is now personally responsible for the death of an ambassador, since his answer was so bad. With all due respect to the pundit class living in their Washington bubble, waiting for Libya to explode like Watergate ... bullshit.
Romney won the debate, hands down. It wasn't even close.
No one will be going into the voting booth and voting for or against Obama because of the Libya.
The number one issue in this election has always been the economy and the debt crisis. This has been the case since January, and has been confirmed in poll after poll. Even when Obama had been leading in the polls, the economy was always the voter's top concern.
During the first debate, Romney was able to accomplish two very important things. First, he was able to talk directly to the voters, without media spin and obfuscation, to explain his plans for the economy. He was able to do this in simple terms that people could understand and relate to. Second, he was able to eliminate the "Scrooge McDuck" image that Obama's advertizing had crafted in the minds of a small, but electorally significant segment of the voters. Voters decided that they like him and he is an acceptable alternative to Obama. They also decided that they like Romney plans for the economy, better than Obama's promises.
As the debate ended, a lot of undecideds and independents made preliminary decisions to vote for Romney.
The Obama campaign was now in deep trouble, but never understood the real danger. While they focused on lies and Big Bird, they missed their key failure in the debate, and in their campaign in general. They have never offered specific plans for the second term. Obama and his advertising are long on saying they have a plan, but they never actually describe it. Romney on the other hand has now gotten his 5 point plan into the minds of the voters. They probably can't name all 5 points, but like Herman Cain and the 999 plan, everyone knows he has one.
Obama let 2 weeks of campaigning pass without correcting this fatal flaw in his campaign. Meanwhile the polls and swing states moved away from him and toward Romney. During that two week period, Obama lost Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia.
During the second debate, Romney needed to reinforce the preliminary decisions of those voters. Romney was able to do that both by continuing to explain his economic plan, and, in a surprise twist of turning a "gotcha" moment into a strong response, explaining why he will be different from Bush. I believe his Bush answer was the strongest moment of the night, negating years of Obama's "blame Bush" rhetoric.
Last night, Obama needed to change the direction of the campaign. He needed to get soft voters that have shifted to Romney to move back to him. That is a tough thing to do, but it was possible. He had to lay out a 2nd term agenda that would counter the Romney 5 point plan and give voters confidence that Obama knows how to fix a struggling economy.
Both the CBS and CNN polls showed that while viewers narrowly gave Obama a "win" in the debate, he lost on the crucial point of stewardship of the economy. The CBS poll gave Romney a 65-35 win, while the CNN poll gave Romney a 54-40 win. Obama spent a lot of time talking about this election being a "choice", but he never articulated what voters would be choosing if they voted for him. This left the default answer to be Romney's, 4 more years like the last 4 years.
The discussion about Libya, Crowley, and Romney's "wiff" is interesting to the pundit class, but mostly irrelevant. It matters to the voter only as a confirming example of Obama's incompetence. The average voter (and even sophisticated voters) can't keep track of what happened and when. The detailed timelines that GOP strategists are whining about are not important to the voter, beyond proving again that Obama can't keep a story straight. The fact that we are discussing Bengazi at all this morning is a major problem for Obama. Whether or not he wins on the details of the Libya coverup doesn't matter. They are taking time away from the most important thing he needs to be doing.
He is continuing to fail to explain how he will address the voter's number one concern. He didn't do it last night. And every day that passes, Romney continues to solidify his support.
It is probably too late now for Obama. He lost his only chance to speak directly to the voters, and the final debate focused on foreign policy will not revisit the most important topic of this election.