Debate a wake up call

President Obama’s disastrous debate performance last week accomplished a feat that isn’t supposed to happen anymore — it moved the needle of public opinion. Post-debate polling has shown anywhere from a 3-point Romney bounce (in Gallup’s daily tracking poll) to a whopping 12-point swing away from the president (in Pew’s latest national poll). 

Conservatives immediately abandoned their polling conspiracies and decided they liked polling after all, for the moment. Meanwhile, liberals — who had been so happy with Obama’s recent polling dominance — cast around nervously, wondering what was going on. 

Broadly speaking, Mitt R≠omney crushed Obama in the debate. Whatever the reason for Obama’s listless performance, the results were clear — and brutal. Gallup saw the biggest debate victory margin in its polling history, with even Democrats conceding the faceoff to Romney by a 49-39 margin. Obama might have denied Republicans a “moment” they could use against him, but he handed them something far more valuable: a clean and decisive victory.

Conservatives, desperate to see Obama knocked around, were thrilled by Romney’s performance. According to polling by Ipsos/Reuters, Romney’s favorability with Republicans spiked post-debate, from 85-15 to 90-10. In a Public Policy Polling survey for Daily Kos and SEIU, 74 percent of conservatives said they were “very excited” about voting this election, compared to 65 percent last week.

Even more troubling for the president is the finding that liberals appear to have been turned off by the debate. While Obama’s favorability in all the available polling was unaffected, the number of respondents identifying as liberals or Democrats decreased. Although conservatives see that sort of sampling as a form of nefarious “skewing,” the fact is that the polls reflect the people who answer the phones. “We know that party identification moves over time — sometimes in very short periods of time, just like other political variables,” wrote Gallup’s Frank Newport. “Generally, if there is a political tide toward either of the two major parties, all questions we ask that are of a political nature will move in that direction.” 

That means that if Obama is doing well, the number of Democrats in the poll will rise. If the alternative is happening, it means the number of Republican respondents will also increase. If pollsters weighed by party, the shift in the numbers wouldn’t be swinging as broadly. But right now, more Republicans are expressing interest in Romney’s candidacy than Democrats are about Obama. 

Obama’s debate performance clearly put a damper on progressive intensity. And how could it not? He pointedly refused to defend Social Security, even making the ludicrous claim that his and Romney’s position on the program were similar. He let Romney’s $700-billion Medicare lie go unchallenged 10 times. He allowed Romney to get the last word in on every question, ceded ground when interrupted and generally did his best imitation of a human punching bag. Democrats can complain all they want about Romney’s dishonesty, but the simple fact is that Obama stood on that stage and let lie after lie fly at him unchallenged. For liberals looking for a champion, it was a nightmare. 

Of course, there are still two more presidential debates, as well as this week’s vice-presidential showdown. And polling already shows that Romney’s bump had evaporated by Sunday. But last week’s disaster should be a wake-up call for the president. People vote for leaders who look like they’re fighting for them. Last week, only Romney fit that bill.

Moulitsas is the publisher and founder of Daily Kos (dailykos.com)