TOPICS > Politics

Romney-Obama Race Tightens Up, Raising Stakes for Vice Presidential Debate

October 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Margaret Warner talks to the Rothenberg Political Report's Stu Rothenberg, USA Today's Susan Page and Pew Research Center's Andy Kohut about the latest election polls coming out of the first presidential debate, and what that means for the stakes in this week's vice presidential debate.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we return to the presidential campaign now, with just 29 days left until Election Day.

Margaret Warner has that.

MARGARET WARNER: To get a sense of where the race stands after the first presidential debate and expectations for this week’s face-off between Vice President Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan, we’re joined by three NewsHour regulars:

Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call, Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today, and Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

Welcome back to all of you.

Before we leap into the polls and the upcoming debate, Stu, why would — with just a month to go, why would the Romney campaign decide to give yet another speech on foreign policy?

STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Well, I think the campaign has changed in a number of ways. Certainly, the focus on foreign policy has changed.

Margaret, a month ago, we were still talking almost entirely about jobs and the economy. Now we have had a U.S. ambassador murdered in Libya. There’s been general — much more attention to foreign policy. And I think we had good jobs numbers as well. Remember that.

MARGARET WARNER: Last Friday.

STUART ROTHENBERG: So, the Romney campaign is looking to go kind of where the ducks are. And at this moment, the economic numbers are good for the White House, but there’s more and more controversy about foreign policy and leadership.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that, Susan? Did they see this as an opportunity to be seized?

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Well, I think that they understand — the Romney camp understands that he needs to be seen as a credible commander in chief if he’s going to be elected president. There’s a bar he needs to get over there.

But I don’t think they’re going to stick on this issue. I think it’s pretty clear that even though foreign policy has risen a bit, and even though there was an opening because of the White House’s changing explanation of the attacks in Benghazi that killed our ambassador, that this election is going to be prosecuted on the economy.

And that is the topic that I think we will turn back to for most of the remaining weeks of the campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Andy, in all these new polls, yours and others, there clearly has been definite movement since the debate. What is underlying it? I mean, we know that everyone thinks that Romney won the debate but what’s really driving this shift and how significant is it?

ANDREW KOHUT, PewResearchCenter: We have to go back to Romney winning the debate.

He won the debate by 46 percentage points. That’s the largest victory in history, according to the Gallup poll. And it gave a tremendous boost to his personal image, which was a real problem in September coming out of the conventions and coming out of the gaffes and problems that he had.

So we see in our poll by a margin of seven points, people say he’s the candidate with new ideas. He ties Obama now on the — for strong leader, when a couple of weeks ago and when we did our September survey, it was Obama who was seen as the strong leader.

And for the first time in this campaign, Romney’s personal favorable rating has hit the 50 percent mark. It’s been very, very low. He’s brought it back up.

He’s made the race even among registered voters. And he has a slight lead in our poll among likely voters, unlike the big margin that Obama had a month ago.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Stu, personal qualities was where President Obama had had a huge edge.

STUART ROTHENBERG: No, exactly. This debate turned things around. It made Mitt Romney more likable, and the leadership is really strong. Margaret, presidential elections are often about who is the stronger leader.

But on other questions, there was a significant change. Honest and thoughtful — honest and truthful, rather, Romney’s numbers are up.

Willingness to work with leaders from the other party, I think there was a significant tonal change over the past week or so in the Romney campaign. Voters seem to like it. They’re just more open to him these days.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what we’re saying is sometimes — President Obama is still ahead in some of these categories, but that Romney has just personally improved his — the perception of him.

SUSAN PAGE: I think one of the most significant things that happened with the debate though is that it energized Republicans who had become a little discouraged. There was a little bit of sense that maybe this was an election floating away from them.

USA Today does polling in partnership with Gallup. Gallup does this daily track that we all look at every day when it’s posted at 1:00. Today’s numbers were posted. Obama was ahead by 5 percentage points. Starting tomorrow, Gallup will go to a likely voter sample. The five-point advantage for President Obama is among registered voters.

And the impact of doing that is going to wipe out that Obama advantage. It’s going to make it a tied race or essentially a tied race. Why is that? Because Republicans are more energized, more likely to actually go and vote.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Andy, you also found that on certain issues, Romney had moved up, even if President Obama remained ahead, but in the handling of certain issues.

ANDREW KOHUT: And he moved up on the biggie. The number one issue, the Americans voter are improving jobs.

A month ago, it was about even. In the current poll, 49 percent say we have more confidence in Romney. Just 41 percent say that about Obama.

Obama — or Romney now has his advantage on the budget deficit. He made progress on the issues that were the subjects that took — dominated the debate.

MARGARET WARNER: And yet you found there — oh, go ahead, Stu.

STUART ROTHENBERG: I was just going to add, Margaret — absolutely, Andy is correct. But I think it’s even stunning that when you look at Medicare, health care and foreign policy, sure, the president still has a narrow advantage on all those issues.

But Mitt Romney is suddenly in the ball game, almost even with the president on these — certainly two of them, Medicare and health care, traditionally Democratic issues. So, that’s a stunning development, I would say.

MARGARET WARNER: So, how does this lay the table for the vice presidential debate, Susan? It clearly raises the stakes.

SUSAN PAGE: I think that’s right. I think, traditionally, vice presidential debates have not in fact made very much difference in the outcome of elections.

This one may be a bit more important because Democrats, I think, worry they are losing momentum, that they see all these gains for Gov. Romney on so many fronts.

This will be a chance for Vice President Biden maybe to prosecute the case in a more effective way than President Obama did in his debate and get some of that momentum back, rather than waiting for the next presidential debate, which is a week later on Long Island.

MARGARET WARNER: What does the Obama campaign think, though, Stu, that Vice President Biden has to sort of either undo or do to shift the energy here?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I think the last debate was about the president’s performance. It was about how he has behaved as president and what kind of a leader he was. And he failed to show.

So, I think Joe Biden is going to come out strong, aggressively, try to carry the fight to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to again show that the Democratic Party, the Democratic ticket is fighting, frankly, and to…

MARGARET WARNER: Which some Democrats were doubting after the…

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, to try to make this debate about the Ryan budget, whether the Republicans are telling the truth, whether there is a different Mitt Romney to really carry the fight.

MARGARET WARNER: And, then, Susan, so, what do the Romney-Ryan team — what does the Romney-Ryan team think it has to do with Vice President Biden to try to keep the momentum going and not become a target of all those questions about the Ryan plan?

SUSAN PAGE: Right.

You know, a debate where people said that Republicans won, boy, that would be great news for the Romney team, trying to build on this progress that they made since the last debate.

Because, of course, as Andy knows better than anyone, findings that go your way quickly can go away quickly. It indicates a race in some flux.

I think specifically they’re going to want to be in a position to defend the attacks they know are coming, especially on the issues of Medicare and domestic spending, because you can tie Paul Ryan to the Paul Ryan budget plan that has some things that will be controversial with voters, including voters in swing states.

MARGARET WARNER: A quick final thought from you, Andy, just a little perspective here.

To what degree do vice presidential debates shift the momentum of any campaign just historically?

ANDREW KOHUT: Hardly much at all. The famous debate we think about is Bentsen and Quayle. It got a lot of press.

MARGARET WARNER: “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”

ANDREW KOHUT: Yes, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” It had no impact on the race.

Now, four years ago, when Palin and Biden debated, Biden’s victory over Palin added to the problems that McCain was having and furthered that.

But, by and large, we’re not talking — we don’t see these debates as really very consequential in terms of the horse race.

MARGARET WARNER: I imagine we can expect a large audience anyway.

Andy, Susan, and Stu, thank you.

SUSAN PAGE: Thank you.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks.