Undecided Voters: Round One Goes to Romney

Romney Says Obama Is Crushing Middle Income Families
Romney Says Obama Is Crushing Middle Income Families

Now, we don't agree on much, but reality is reality. Gov. Romney won the debate.

No way to deny it, spin it, or paint a different picture. It was the moment the Romney campaign was looking for -- a decisive victory that could change the narrative -- and he got it.

One knew from the opening answer that Gov. Romney had come loaded for bear. From that very first answer on, he was passionate and forceful. He recited a blizzard of facts and offered well-structured answers. He was empathetic and respectful to the president. And, he pushed a coherent and focused message. In fact, for these 90 minutes, he was the opposite of the campaign and the candidate the American people have seen.

Yes, he was quite good.

President Obama, on the other hand, was passive bordering on disinterest. He seemed displeased at times, and even worse, he showed it. He had no message and he meandered. He ignored facts and specifics he could have used to attack Gov. Romney. He didn't have an effective frame or any message. Interestingly, one of President Obama's best answers came when he defended his health care plan, but he still did not undermine Gov. Romney in this exchange. How is that possible? On health care?

Worst of all, he let Gov. Romney control the debate from beginning to end. Folks, it's Debate 101 that you never -- ever -- let your opponent control the debate. At a minimum, the president needed to be as aggressive as Gov. Romney. But he wasn't.

Putting aside our observations, based on an AOL-sponsored debate night focus group of 25 undecided voters, the results were clear. Romney won. President Obama lost.

When asked whether they felt that Romney improved his image, the answer was a resounding yes. When asked whether they felt this would energize his campaign, the answer was yes. While the president did show signs of improvement in the second half of the debate among our group, it just wasn't nearly enough.

So what did we learn from tonight's debate and what does it mean for the remaining two presidential debates?

1. Be On-Message: Watch the debate again. Count how many times Romney said the word "jobs" versus President Obama. Does anyone want to make a $10,000 bet how many more times Gov. Romney said jobs? It is inexplicable that the president ceded this word and issue to Gov. Romney. This election is about jobs and the economy, yet the president rarely talked about jobs. Gov. Romney kept talking about jobs and the economy, even when he was asked about something else. In doing so, Romney won the message war.

2. Expectations Matter: Much as George W. Bush won the debates in 2000 because voters expected so little, Mitt Romney "won" last night because he so exceeded expectations. Let's be honest, most folks expected Gov. Romney wouldn't do well tonight. In fact, if you were watching his campaign you would have expected -- predicted -- some disastrous gaffe or mistake. The expectations were low, and that kind of expectations game creates a dangerous dynamic. Voters come in thinking they're going to witness some caricature of a candidate they've seen and heard. But when they see and hear something different, the reaction and effect is even greater than the debate performance may even warrant.

3. Passion Matters -- a Lot!: Gov. Romney sounded and looked passionate, the president did not (except on health care). Gov. Romney spoke like he truly believed in what he was saying, while President Obama's tone missed the mark. He seemed unwilling to sell to the American people on his vision and policies in the passionate ways we have heard in the past. The word we heard most to describe Obama: "flat" -- and this is at a time when Americans want their president to rise to the challenge and inspire us to greatness again.

4. Stats Matter: Here's a little debate trick to remember: If you want to sound substantive, use statistics to reinforce nearly every response and attack. It's the "facts" voters say they crave. Romney did just that. He was a human statistics machine. He used them to not only reinforce his answers but to undermine the president's. Were these statistics all true? Who knows? But the president did nothing to undermine Gov. Romney's statistics and arguments. As a result, Romney's answers sounded more informed, more convincing, and more credible.

5. Be Aggressive: Aggressiveness is more appealing than defensiveness, and the president displayed no willingness to engage. He did not press. He did not counterpunch. He did not mention the 47% video or a litany of attacks his campaign has used to define Gov. Romney. Why? It's almost inexplicable. President Obama simply failed to take the fight to Gov. Romney, even as his own campaign takes the fight to Romney very day. There were clearly moments -- many of them -- where he could have forcefully engaged Gov. Romney. Instead, President Obama chose a more cerebral and filibustering approach, which does not work when you face a determined opponent.

So where do we go from here? Will this change the course of the election?

We'll see, but one thing is clear. The next presidential debate just became as important to President Obama as it is to Gov. Romney.

Let the battle continue.

Chris Kofinis is a Democratic strategist. Frank Luntz is a Republican pollster and strategist. AOL has an elections content partnership with Chris Kofinis and Luntz Global.