By Justin Sink - 10/21/12 10:00 AM EDT
The 2012 presidential race, once viewed as a dreary grind of a contest, has picked up a surprising amount of intensity this month.
Just a few weeks ago, the race was perhaps most remarkable for how unremarkable it was.
A Pew Survey this summer found that two-thirds of people thought the 2012 election would be "exhausting" and 63 percent called it "annoying," while only 41 percent of independents said the race would be "exciting."
Throughout 2012, Obama predicted the race would have its ups and downs. But through the Republican and Democratic conventions, polls consistently showed the president with single-digit leads, and it appeared Romney might not ever capture momentum.
In early September, Obama started to pull away from his GOP rival. And arguably the most fascinating storyline of the race, its closeness, started to fade away.
But Mitt Romney's spirited performance in the first presidential debate has injected new life not just into his White House aspirations, but the campaign as a whole. Recent weeks have seen a flood of support at campaign rallies and events, major upticks in donations to the campaigns, and a new electricity to a once joyless 2012 campaign.
According to Nielsen, 65.6 million Americans tuned in to Tuesday night's debate between Obama and Romney, millions more than any debate in the 2008 race — which averaged just over 57 million viewers per debate.
"The first debate was clearly a watershed moment," said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. "It brought home a number of Republicans who might have been on the fence. And for Democrats, it's shaken us out of our overconfidence stupor, and people realized this is going to be a tough fight."
Republican strategist Ford O'Connell says the change in enthusiasm can be simplified down to one simple change: voters actually believe Romney can win the election.
"Americans like winners," O'Connell said. "There is no better cure for a lack of enthusiasm than instilling the belief in voters that a candidate can win."
The candidates also seem more engaged, showing a new willingness to mix it up on the campaign trail and aggressively target their opponents. On Friday, Obama debuted a new line of attack, mocking his opponent as suffering from "Romnesia" and suggesting he was abandoning the positions he staked out in the Republican primary.
"If you say you’re for equal pay for equal work, but you keep refusing to say whether or not you’d sign a bill that protects equal pay for equal work — you might have Romnesia," Obama quipped.
And Romney made headlines with his performance at the Al Smith Dinner, a charity event in New York City where both candidates delivered effective one-liners.
"We're now in the final months of the president's term," Romney said. "As President Obama surveys the Waldorf banquet room with everyone in white tie and finery, you have to wonder what he's thinking. So little time, so much to redistribute."
The race has transformed from a midsummer slugfest focused almost entirely on the economy. In recent weeks, a mixture of foreign policy and social issues have dominated the headlines, forcing the candidates to engage on some of the policies that have traditionally proven their ability to rile their parties' respective bases.
"The issue terrain has moved off a pure economic debate to one about values and trust, and that's when these social issues begin to pop," said Simmons. "Most voters are really value voters, and my evidence for that is all these Democrats who make more than $100,000 a year in Washington and New York who vote for Democrats and all the Republicans who make less than $75,000 a year that continue to vote for Republicans."
And while Romney's campaign believes it is gaining traction by pressing the president on his administration's handling of the terrorist attack in Libya — while Obama's team similarly sees an opening on women's issues — emphasis on those matters can rile partisans on both sides.
"It's a strange dynamic, because nobody on the Democratic side has ever really won the presidency before on the support of abortion rights," said Republican strategist Matt Schlapp. "They didn't really advertise it, they didn't really look to talk to it… but now we have a Democratic president who sees the political value of bringing it to the forefront. But that assumes women are monolithic on these issues. For people like me who come from families with women who are monolithic on the other side, it seems they don't get how this will matter for women on the other side."
One clear sign partisans are jumping into the fray more than ever: fundraising. The president took in $181 million in September, with Romney trailing narrowly with a $170 million haul — both numbers a dramatic uptick from the previous month, where the candidates raised $114 million and $111 million, respectively.
Political analysts also say the debates — unique live spectacles that Americans can now comment instantly upon via social media — have fostered a new type of game-show excitement for the race. In a media landscape that is increasingly fractured and individualized, they are the rare event that seemingly everyone is watching and analyzing in real time to their friends and families.
“Viewers like a little spontaneity, and politics matches up well,” said Schlapp. “What you’re seeing across the country is people are enjoying these moments where the candidates have to get up there and do it without a speech, live in front of everyone.”