The Obama Romney Debate: Who Won (and Why That's Not the Key Question)

 President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama

So the debates are over, and after 270 minutes of partisan disagreement, we've learned some important lessons. First debates matter a lot. Second debates matter some. And third debates, maybe, not so much?

As we all know by now, Gov. Romney's superior performance in the first debate upended this race and may have put him on the cusp of becoming the next president of the United States. If Romney wins this election, it will be because of that first debate.

The second debate, regardless of whom you think won, did little to change the dynamics of the race. While President Obama did much better, he was unable to reverse Romney's momentum. At best, Obama's second debate performance may have stanched the bleeding, but even that isn't clear.

As for the third debate, let's not sugarcoat it, President Obama won decisively -- at least on the topic of the evening, foreign policy. That's good news for Obama and bad news for Romney. (However, yes, there is a "but" coming later on.)

Obama was strong and forceful throughout when discussing his foreign policy record and vision. He was aggressive, and was clearly determined to put Romney on the defensive. Obama successfully used Romney's previous statements to not only undercut Romney's foreign policy bona fides, but to make his own record look better. If the president had a weak spot, it was that he seemed almost too determined to critique Gov. Romney.

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Conversely, Romney was strongest -- as we predicted -- when he tied his answers back to the economy, deficits and jobs. In point of fact, he didn't do this nearly enough. He also came across as tougher on Iran than the president, one of the few areas in which he seemed to best Obama. Romney was also very measured and careful -- maybe too careful. It's clear that Romney's debate strategy this time around was to avoid gaffes and paint himself as a safe alternative not just to American voters in general, but to women voters in particular.

All in all, Obama won most of the exchanges, and landed a memorable zinger or two. Romney made no major mistakes and avoided saying anything that would have crippled his campaign. Both candidates also seem to have accomplished their primary goals. President Obama looked presidential and strongly defended his economic and foreign policy record. Governor Romney, too, came across as presidential, but emphasized a starkly different vision for the economy, while all but bear-hugging the president on foreign policy. So both did what they aimed to do: The question is what will matter most for voters when they cast their ballots on Nov. 6?

But, (yes, here it is) the bad news for Obama, and good news for Romney, is that winning this debate may not matter very much.

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Based on the focus group AOL assembled to watch the debate Monday night, while Obama won the debate, he did not win over undecided voters. In fact, only two voters in the AOL focus group changed their minds -- one for Obama, the other for Romney. This was not a critique of the president's performance. Rather, it was a reflection of the fact that undecided voters didn't think this debate or foreign policy issues, in general, influenced how they should vote.

That AOL focus group seems to confirm a simple political truth we've all long known: When the nation is facing tough economic and fiscal problems, voters are far more fixated on local issues than global challenges. As James Carville so memorably said, it's about the economy, stupid, and Monday's debate seemed to confirm this theory once again.

So the president may have indeed won the final debate Monday, but we'll have to wait and see whether the few remaining undecided voters were paying attention to it -- or even care. Based on our focus group, it doesn't seem they did -- which suggests this race will remain close right to the bitter end.

That means 14 more days of harsh 30-second ads, highly orchestrated campaign events, carefully scripted stump speeches in swing states, and an onslaught of conflicting polls.
And you thought it was finally over.

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.

Originally published