A Campaign Counterfactual–Updated
October 27th, 2012

Looking at both the polling data and the emanations from the Obama operation, I get the sense that we might be witnessing a campaign on the verge of collapse. Obama never articulated a vision for his next term in office, but when he was succeeding in the polls he was mounting a passable defense of his first term and making a sustained, targeted critique of Romney as an unfit challenger. For the last week or two, both of those prongs seem to have been abandoned in favor of any-club-at-hand. Big Bird. “Romnesia.” Bayonets. This has the smell of panic. It also reeks of amateur hour–a moment when the grownups on the campaign feel as though their quivers are empty and start letting the Jim Messina’s of the world dictate tactics.

A couple observations:

* As Haley Barbor likes to say, Bad gets worse. It was always a mystery why Obama was leading Romney for most of the last year, despite being the weakest incumbent since Carter. (Or Ford. Or Hoover. Take your pick.) Now that the polls have caught up with him, it’s unclear what he can do to stop the bleeding, because he should have bled out months ago.

* That said, there’s still the possibility that he could hold on for another week and a half. If the election were going to be held on December 6, you’d probably think that Romney’s chances would be better. As it is, you can envision a scenario in which Obama holds onto the ball just long enough to squeak out a win.

* A word of praise for Romney: His performance in the first debate was great and since then he’s done an admirable job of staying out of Obama’s way and letting him collapse. I’m sure there must have been an urge to try to pile on and hasten the fall. Resisting that urge was smart.

* Finally, a counterfactual question: My own sense of the first debate was that Obama was probably weaker than he should have been, but that he wasn’t disastrous. It wasn’t a question of the president being bad, it was a matter of Romney being that good.

So here’s my question: Imagine a world in which, during and after the debate, the left didn’t have a collective, public freak out. In other words, a world in which a still-functional Journolist-type of operation was able to corral lefty elites and get them into something like a coherent message instead of having them set themselves on fire over Twitter. Imagine if they had gotten some message discipline and taken a line more like Republican heads did after the second and third debate–Yes, our guy probably lost this on points, but this was a strong performance and blah-blah-blah.

Would it have made any difference? The debate would still be the debate, and the insta-polls would have been the same. But if Chris Matthews and Andrew Sullivan and their fellow travelers hadn’t micturated on the carpet in public panic, would the story out of the Denver debate been anything more than, Strong performance by Romney, Obama needs to up his game.

As our president likes to say, let me be clear about a couple of things: I’m not suggesting that people should self-consciously manipulate their public opinions to further political goals. You should call things like you see them. What I am suggesting is that this was the first real Twitter debate and the newness of the encounter may have exerted a real Heisenberg pull, stampeding people into opinions that, had they been publishing the next morning having only traded a couple emails with friends, they might not have actually had.

And that in the specific case of the Denver debate, that stampede might have had an effect. How much of one? I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s crazy to wonder if the simultaneous, public collapse of the president’s liberal supporters had as much of an effect on the race as the president’s actual debate performance.

Update: Santino gets to the nub more clearly than I did:

[I]t’s impossible to arrange talking points when the members of said list are one-upping each other in a public forum, panicking in the cleverest and most retweetable way possible.

That’s something worth dwelling on a little: Did the competitive nature of Twitter—the rush to be funniest and fastest and most visible—push the Democrats over the edge? “God, Obama is terrible.” “He’s SO terrible.” “He’s SO terrible that he’s like the Titanic!” “He’s SO terrible that he’s like the Titanic crashing into an iceberg made of black holes!” “And the black holes are like the wormhole in Event Horizon and he’s going to go through them and come back all evil and scary and AH AH AH PANIC.” Etc.

Anyway, the lesson here is that real time political analysis is a terrible idea. I sure am glad it’s the future!

  1. Lasorda October 27, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    You think the carpet pissers did this?

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  3. Klug October 27, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Is it me, or does “Romnesia” vaguely remind you of “Ozone Man” and “these bozos”?

    Also, you shouldn’t confuse the online left/Obama supporters with your average Democrat, probably.

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  5. It’s hard to coordinate in real time October 27, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    […] at his joint, JVL posits a counter factual: So here’s my question: Imagine a world in which, during and after the [first] debate, the left […]

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  7. Ben October 27, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    The snowball effect matters here in the sense that the freakout lasted for multiple news cycles. But I think it only cemented the “Emperor has no clothes” moment – it couldn’t have erased it, but it could have mitigated the damage.

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  9. Nedward October 27, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    I remember this being explained by Bernard Goldberg on the old tube–this was 10+ years ago–as the central con misconception re: media bias. I.e. They might be stultifyingly culturally monolithic, but they’re sorority sisters at heart. In the aftermath of O’s underwhelming debate they attempted to outdo each other in teeth-gnashing and hair-tearing, purely as a phenomenon of tribe anthropology. The problem for the O campaign was their unique level of symbiosis with the press’s force field, which they exploited to great advantage in 08/09. It’s hard to extricate yourself from the Acela metaverse, thus a mere glitch in the matrix became the Worst Optics Ever. They were hungry for Dukakis in the tank, they were STARVING for it

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  11. Galley Friend J.E. October 28, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    “As our president likes to say, let me be clear about a couple of things:…” Sorry, JVL, you violated his rule. You actually told us what you thought afterwards. Obama uses that as a preface for a lie. Happens every time.

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  13. Moe Lane » Did the Left’s panicked response to first debate make things worse for Obama? October 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    […] Last has an interesting thought: [H]ere’s my question: Imagine a world in which, during and after the debate, the left didn’t […]