Political Pros: What the Final Debate Means

We asked political veterans for their reactions to the final Obama-Romney debate. The contributors are Mark S. Mellman, Democratic pollster and Mellman Group president; Frank J. Donatelli, former Reagan political director and current GOPAC chairman; Peter Fenn, a democratic political strategist and owner of Fenn Communications Group; David Winston, GOP strategist and president of the Winston Group; and Jim Manley, former chief spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and now senior director at Quinn Gillespie & Associates.

Here are their reactions:

Frank J. Donatelli: Romney Holds the High Ground

Foreign-policy debates favor incumbent presidents, since the international arena offers more leeway to chief executives and affords them the opportunity to show off their leadership skills.

Despite this advantage, President Obama might have provided the least-presidential performance ever. His every answer was harshly negative toward his opponent and he seldom provided an overarching theme to his foreign policy for the last four years. While his partisans cheered yet another aggressive effort, one wonders if this didn’t further diminish him among non-aligned voters.

Mr. Romney, as the challenger, sought to reassure Americans that he could be trusted handling U.S. foreign policy and he seemed to succeed in that task. He also scored effectively by attacking Obama for diminishing America’s influence in the world and several times for his poor handling of the American economy.

The debates this year will be among the most consequential ever, ranking with Bush-Gore in 2000 and Reagan-Carter in 1980. In each case, the candidate of the out party was able to clearly contrast his policies and Programs with those of the incumbent administration, thus providing a clear choice for the voters.

Prior to the first debate, Mr. Obama led Mr. Romney by 3% to 5% nationally, as well as in all the swing states. After tonight, the race is dead even, with Mr. Romney holding the high ground as the candidate best able to handle the key economic issues of job creation, economic growth and deficit reduction. If he can keep the public’s focus on the economy for the next two weeks, I like his chances.

In the end, the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on 30-second negative ads was not as significant as the four debates just concluded. Debates do more than anything to create an informed electorate by giving vital information to the American people. Hats off to the Commission on Presidential Debates, which makes sure that this important work continues every election cycle.