11:35 pm Oct. 3, 2012
In 2008, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe famously told his staff to ignore the pundits and cable channels, believing that the kind of bluster and fluff that animates them is not the same thing voters were seeking.
He also spoke often of having to calm the "bedwetters"—his term for supporters and others who freaked out whenever disconcerting, but ultimately inconsequential, developments arose.
Right after the first debate of 2012 had ended, Plouffe, now a senior adviser, offered a variation on that, saying the Obama campaign doesn't "believe in decisive moments."
Obama seemed determined to test that proposition with his performance against Romney, offering a flat, policy-based prescription to voters that was low on hyperbole and resolutely unconfrontational, even when very clear opportunities for confrontation presented themselves.
It certainly made for a lack of "big" moments for Obama, the kind the media loves that get replayed on cable and retweeted throughout the night. He seemed at once over-prepared with talking points and determined not to do anything memorable.
In that way, his performance was reminiscent of some of the ones he put in during the 2008 campaign, particularly throughout his famous primary fight with Hillary Clinton. He was often described by the press in those situations as flat, and often looked as if he were flat-out losing, in the media's estimation.
As I write this, he's getting creamed in all the post-game analysis, including (especially?) by left-leaning pundits. Obama barely seemed capable of responding to his opponent, let alone of scoring any points. Unmentioned were Romney's comments about the 47 percent, the Republican Party's contraceptive policies, the auto bailout, and so on. Obama didn't even make clear the differences between the tickets on Social Security and Medicare.
Romney won, by every conventional measure.
But did he win in a way that matters to Plouffe and co.?
Obama is substantially ahead nationally and in nearly every swing state. It's a trope, but: debates do not move the polls nearly as much as historians and pundits retroactively suggest.
One exception to this rule was Al Gore, who entered the debates leading polls by eight points, but ended the three events with that margin erased. Obama had no Al Gore moments. He was respectful to his opponent, smiled several times throughout the night, and did little to turn off anyone already inclined to vote for him.
Obama wasn't pretty to watch at that first debate—his whole manner suggests he was sent in there by his aides with instructions, above all, not to mess up. That's no way to win with the media. But apparently Plouffe and the rest of the campaign are about as concerned about that as they were four years ago.
Blake Zeff is a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and a former aide to Chuck Schumer and Eric Schneiderman.