Last night's debate was destined to be an unfair fight. It's not just that foreign policy is the area where Barack Obama is most comfortable — where he's had the most freedom to implement his agenda and steer the United States in a particular direction. Rather, it's the oft-noted fact that — unlike a candidate — he is conducting foreign policy and acting as commander-in-chief. He has ordered troops into combat, made phone calls to the families of fallen soldiers, and held intense negotiations with leaders of other countries. That lends a gravity to Obama's arguments that Mitt Romney couldn't replicate.
Post-debate snap polls are not a good way to judge the effect of debates on public opinion, but they do give you a starting point for how the debate was perceived. In this case, Romney's loss was on par with Obama's in the first debate: The CBS instant poll has Obama winning the debate by a margin of 30 points, 53 percent to 23 percent; CNN shows an 8 point win, 48 percent to 40 percent, and Public Policy Polling shows Obama winning by an 11 point margin in swing states, 53 percent to 42 percent.
But there's a key difference between now and then. When Obama lost big, Democrats and liberals entered a spiral of panic that almost certainly contributed to the public's sense that the president was a loser (see: Sullivan, Andrew). Mitt Romney has lost two consecutive debates — one by modest amount, the other in a rout — and conservatives are spinning it as a solid performance.
The media consensus, so far, is that this debate won't have an effect like the one in Denver. That's probably correct: Romney was underperforming for most of the fall, and the first debate effectively reset his campaign, and brought it in line with the fundamentals.
But last night could still matter to the outcome. It's worth considering Nate Silver's take: “with the contest being so tight, any potential gain for Mr. Obama could matter.” A one point bounce in the polls seems insignificant, but with less than two weeks before the election, it could turn Obama's slight lead into a small, more comfortable one. Right now, the simple fact is that for all the talk of Romney's momentum, his path to 270 is steeper than Obama's. At a minimum, last night's debate won't alter this. Let's let Charlie Cook have the last word:
Although this race is very close, the road to 270 electoral votes is considerably more difficult for Romney than it is for Obama...If Obama carries Ohio and Wisconsin, where he is ahead in most polling, he gets the 270 with one electoral vote to spare, so Romney could sweep Colorado, Florida, Iowa, and New Hampshire and still come up short. No matter how you cut it, Ohio is the pivotal state, and it isn't just the history of having gone with every winner from 1964 on and with no Republican ever capturing the White House without it.
To be sure, this race is so close that it clearly can go either way, but the Obama electoral path looks less steep than the one Romney must traverse, and the final debate seems unlikely to have altered that fact.