Who won the third debate? Obama or Romney

Oct 23, 2012

Monday marked the final 2012 general election debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Join associate editor Robert Kaiser discussed what was said, who said it, if either candidate was helped or hurt by the debate and more.

Related: Final debate: What bugged you?

Welcome to the fourth and last of our post-debate chats. I'm pleased that we have already received more questions and comments than after any of the earlier debates, and sad to confess at the outset that it won't be possible for me to reply to them all in the next hour or so. But I will type as fast as I can!

I was on the edge of my seat for the first two debates -- even the VP debate. But this one was frankly boring. I kept checking my watch. Given that Obama needed a strong performance to slow Romney's momentum, isn't a tedious debate a win for Romney?

I'll start with this, which echos (echoes?) several others. There was less Twittering about last night's debate than any previous, suggesting less intense engagement I suppose. I also had a similar reaction--not boredom, certainly, but a sense that this one lacked the nervous excitement generated by the others. Partly this was because both men said so many things they had said already in earlier debates. Partly, significantly I think, it was because of Romney's decision not to pick fights with Obama. If you'd have told me before the debate that he would never bring but Bengazi, I'd have bet heavily against you. 

After the second debate, the media rallied around Obama and declared him the victor. Polls prove otherwise as Romney continued to win ground. But the media may have done Obama a disservice by convincing him that his rude, interrupting style works. It doesn't. He was nasty and divisive. There was no "hope and change" in the man last night. Do you think the media accidentally hurt Obama by over-praising his performance in the second debate?

This comment too is representative of a number of other anti-Obama posts. The range of comments I've received today demonsrates I think the degree to which an event like this affects people very differently depending on the opinions they bring to it. The number of voters who will decide this election is relatively tiny. I have no idea what will move them now, I confess. 

I was stunned, I have to admit, that Romney repeated the statement that Syria provides "access to the sea" for Iran, when Iran has its own access to the sea (the Persian Gulf) and does NOT have a shared border with Syria" How about you think about it a little more then because its so obvious what Romney meant. The "sea" is the Mediterranean. The route is Syrian ports. Iran has already staged warships to and out of Syrian ports in the Med.

I remarked on this last night. Glenn Kessler has explored this at length, and did so again in his Fact Checker column last night, to which we will link here. I have another post from a reader who thinks you and I are both being naive, which I will try to post next.

What's striking about this to me is that Kessler and others first pointed out the weakness of Romney's "access to the sea" comment months ago. Yet he went back to it again last night.

Well now I can't find the other comment on Syria and Iran and access to the sea. It's somewhered in this list, I hope it pops up. The reader, giving Romney the benefit of a loose interpretation in my view, argues that access to Syrian ports on the Mediterranean is what Romney was talking about. It didn't sound like that to me. 

Obama said our "alliances have never been stronger." That sounds odd to me. Is our alliance with Israel stronger? Our alliances in Europe? It seems like Europe is internally-focused on their economic issues, not on tackling thorny world problems with us. What basis does he have for saying that?

Thanks for this. You know, there was a huge bear in the room that no one wanted to mention, I guess, that is at the heart of this question. The George W. Bush administration had a powerful impact on America's standing in the world, and it wasn't for the better. The Pew Center's global polling made this very clear over the years. Bush-Cheney unilateralism infuriated the world, and particularly our oldest allies.  I'd say that our alliances are stronger today than they wee four years ago. Our relations with the prime minister of Israel are strained, to be sure, but many Israelis, including recently the Minister of Defense, say America has never been more supportive. Sure, the Europeans are preoccupied with their problems, but the French and British played the leading role last year in Libya (despite what Obama said about this last night) and helped us out a great deal. This, obviously, is a subject for a longer discussion that I'm afraid we can't have today.

I thought President Obama had the better of the night, both in terms of his debate performance and on which person helped his election prospects more. At the same time, I am baffled that President Obama has missed at least two opportunities to deflate Mitt Romney's signature issue about job creation. At both the town hall and this debate, Romney scoffed at the idea that government could create jobs, after asserting thoughout the debate that his administration would create millions of jobs. He touted ship-building as an instance of how he would create jobs. I just cannot understand why Obama would not have pounced on this inconsistency and asked Romney directly why people should believe his claims about job creation when Romney does not believe in the underlying premise of his own policy.

Thanks for this. I have written about this subject after earlier debates.  That governments  create jobs seems to me an obvious fact--or the nation's teachers and policemen, among millions of others, don't have jobs.

I find it odd that Obama keeps talking about the things "we gotta" do. He's regurgitated his 2008 speeches for 2012. He's making the same promises he made four years ago. And I find his attitude a total turnoff. He appears angry. All he did was basically attack Romney and rehash what we gotta do. Perhaps that's what "ya gotta" do when you have problems defending your own record. If being cynical and derisive wins a debate, well, I guess Obama did win...by a landslide.

We have received quite a few like this. Thank you for it.

I'd be interested in what your readers thought was each candidates most effective moment. I thought Romney's best was calling out Obama for whispering to Putin's aide that he would have more "flexibility" after the election. I thought Obama's best moment was his response to Romney saying that Obama's apology tour had made the US seem weak and that other countries "noticed that you skipped Israel." Obama's somber response was, in my view, his best of the night and made Romney seem sound-bitey and un serious. "When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fund-raisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the - the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the - the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable."

A thoughtful analysis. Thanks.

The two things that stood out (besides the occasional zinger) for me: 1) Romney's positions are constantly changing - and not because he is learning new information - but because it is what his audience wants to hear. All politicians pander - but having your positions change so frequently - raises all kinds of questions about trust and judgment. 2) Romney does not really have a plan or proposal that is very different from what the US is actually doing right now. So even if his points of disagreement were real - it's not clear what he would change.

This too is a representative comment. Romney's switches have upset a lot of Obama supporters. They also may have played the most important role in his closing the gap with Obama. More on that anon...

A debate is not a circus or a reality show or an action film. It's a discussion of issues. The idea that this is "boring" because it's not entertaining us is somewhat disconcerting.

If entertaining was the only alternative to compelling and informative, I'd agree with you.  But the repetition of past positions last night was not compelling, and not informative, in my view.

I've read a theory that this was simply a pro-Israel dog whistle - apparently if Iran pushes militarily towards the Mediterranean, they pretty much have to go over Israeli land. What do you think of this theory?

Not much. Iran is not going to "go over Israeli land" I don't think.

Bob, we don't see you enough on these boards! What do you think of my alternative campaign theory: Yes, those of us who follow such things think that the first debate, because of Obama's performance, flipped the campaign. I wonder if, however, it was the simple matter of Mitt rushing to the middle that signaled to the undecided, lower information voter that he wasn't the guy appearing in all those Obama advertisements? And that this flip would have occurred no matter how Obama performed. And, thus, the real strategic victory for Romney (and by no means am I conceding the election to him, just a big recovery) was have an information-free national convention speech -- where he stayed away from the specifics that littered the distant primaries and gave himself all the room he needed to become Moderate Mitt from Massachusetts? Or, and bonus question: Which is the Real Romney? Primary Mitt or Debate Mitt?

I like this comment, and I hope it's not just because it began with a compliment for me. (Thank you for that). Let me explain why I like it.

We live in an apolitical, even anti-political culture. I am reminded of that this morning reading a number of really uninformed comments from readers of this chat. Most Americans do not follow politics. Most do not really understand complicated domestic, international and economic issues. They react viscerally, which is why television advertising has proven to be a useful tool in modern American elections.

To old-fashioned reporters like me, Mitt Romney's changing positions and Barack Obama's restatements of facts (such as who took the lead in Libya last year--not us, but France and Britain) are annoying to infuriating. But to citizens who don't have the inclination, or perhaps the time, to follow these things, they don't matter much. I think this reader's insight may be right on the money. The "Moderate Mitt" who showed up for the first debate was SO different than than the Mitt depicted in Obama TV commercials and speeches that he changed the race. Enough to win it? I have no better idea than you do, of course.

Do you see Governor Romney as a candidate who morphs to whatever position he needs to promote in order to appeal to the agenda of the day or as a clever and adept politician? Last night's debate showed again that he is willing to either compromise or compromise whatever it is he believes in.

More on the same theme.  Politicians do get away with shifting their positions. But politicians also get in trouble when voters decide they are phonies.  

I thought Obama clearly out-debated Romney and exposed Romney's weaknesses in foreign policy. I'm very frustrated by the "so what?" reaction to this. I feel it's very important that the President finished the final debate on a winning note.

What "so what" reaction? Are you watching too much television? I'd say your reaction was as important as anyone's. Thanks for sharing it. 

Bob, I see many of the same people who called Romney's bullying, aggressive style in the first debate "presidential" are now calling Obama "arrogant," "rude," and worse for being the clear aggressor last night. What do you make of this?

I think challengers can have an advantage in this regard. By definnition, a challenger is supposed to challenge. A president is supposed to be presidential. But I am not convinced Obama was un-presidential last night. Romney had previously made many accusations against his foreign policy which, from Obama's perspective, were infuriating. He was taking on that Romney, who however didn't show up for this debate.

How is it even possible to 'debate' Mitt Romney when his positions are so flexible? A 'normal' debate - Oxford style - is set up where the participants take opposite sides of an issue. I believe that President Obama was flummoxed in the first debate because he was knocked off balance by the unknown Mitt Romney who showed up! And now - in the last debate - where are the differences between Obama and Romney? It's simply astonishing that Romney can change his positions as often as he changes his shirts - wear this one for lunch, and that one for dinner If Romney wins this election it will be a Triumph of Cynicism Machiavelli move over - Romney has taken your place!

Thanks for this. As I said above, this is possible in a society which pays so little attention to politics and issues.  It is "astonishing" to you, and sometimes to me too, that these guys can walk away from their own past statements so blithely. I couldn't tell you what Mitt Romney really believes in for love or money. But I have had that frustrating feeling about many of our political leaders over my lifetime. 

I was surprised Obama didn't mention Romney's view during the 47% speech that Middle East piece was impossible, he'd work only with Israel while pretending to work with the Palestinians, and 'kick the ball down the field and hope that something happens'. To give up in advance on such an important issue, to deceive, and care only about some people not others? Sounds like his auto bailout and no help for homeowners positions, as well as the 47%. On a side question, why didn't Obama attack the Ryan budget in earlier debates?

Sadly, this is one of many "real" issues that have gotten no attention in this campaign.  Romney has alligned himself tightly with Bibi Netanyahu, a right-wing Israeli politician with little interest in the peace process.  That's worth discussing. But Obama doesn't want to discuss it for fear of alienating American Jews who like Bibi. So it doesn't get discussed.

When the President offered his "zinger" about horses and bayonets, which seemed to draw derisive laughter, did he forget that the Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Solder has a bayonet at the end of his rifle? And has he forgotten that horses were quite instrumental in winning some early battles in Afghanistan? And is he aware that bayonets are still being used by the Marines in Afghanistan?

Is this a serious comment? 

I was , as I was in the first debate, bugged that Romney continues twist his positions around everytime he talks, yet NOBODY (except for the president, calls him on it. Everytme I hear some pundt try to explain the swtich in positions, it becomes a lesson in symantics. Let's just agree to call Romney for what he really is...a waffler. If this were 2004 , the media would be all over John Kerry for changing his psitons, but somehow they give the benefit of the doubt to Mitt.

I am, as readers know, no fan of the American Punditocracy, but is it fair to blame "the media" for giving Romney a pass on changing his views? I don't think so. I know about these many changes because of what I read in the media.  It was Karl Rove and the Bush campaign that hammered Kerry so effectively, not the media, in my opinion. 

Foreign policy is a lot less fun for the candidates because you are at the mercy of so many forces you can't control. Who knows who is plotting what at this very moment? The president, having 3.5 years of experience, was able to speak with more authority than Mr. Romney in this area, and his steeliness reflected that.


If President Obama is defeated, will it be more a result of the sluggish economy or his sluggish performance in the first debate?

Of course the economy is much more important. The relationship between high unemployment, sluggish growth and the defeats of incumbent presidents is clear and powerful. In a strong economy, Obama would be waltzing to reelection. 

It has been reported that Mr. Romney has ties to voting machines in key states. Should we, the voting public, be concerned? There is already too much money in politics/election. Now we hear the candidates are buying voting machines. Where does it stop?

What is this about? Sometimes I am amazed by the comments that appear here...

It's hilarious to see how the right-wing pundits are twisting themselves into knots trying to make this debate a positive for Romney. Nope, sorry, Romney did not look like a commander in chief, or like a commander of anything. As the New York Times editorial staff put it this morning, "he had little coherent to say and often sounded completely lost." Whether or not Obama's victory in the debate translates into more votes remains to be seen -- but it was win for Obama, no question.

thanks for posting

I'm a Democrat and I thought Romney sounded more liberal than Obama! What's going on? Romney said "we can't kill our way to victory" or something like that -- and he's right! Did Romney just outflank Obama???

and thanks for this too

Obama clearly went into the debate with ground to make up. Romney was surging in the swing-state polls and had seized the national lead. Obama's strategy was to attack and belittle Romney. Romney's strategy was to look Presidential and avoid any gaffes. Offense vs defense. But Obama was saddled with two huge problems: first of all, it was a foreign policy debate and most voters say the economy is the #1, #2, and #3 issue in their minds; second, his foreign policy might have looked good a couple months ago, but post-Libya he's lost any advantage over Romney. Because Obama was on offense, he probably won the debate on the scorecards. But I doubt it moved any voters -- he didn't land any significant hits (other than base-pleasers about bayonettes and other snark). And Romney accomplished his goal of looking Presidential, reasonable, and knowledgeable. Did Obama win the battle -- only to have Romney win the war (on horseback and with fixed bayonettes)?

Interesting take...

With reference to Obamacare: I have heard from several neurologists that certain neurological procedures after stroke for example will not be available to persons over seventy? Is this true? Can this be true? Can existing Medicare treatment be limited by Obamacare in addition to the panel of fifteen which will further limit care in the name of cutting spending?

Another zany comment. No medical treatments can now be banned or limited by Obamacare or any other federal law.  Maybe that's a mistake--a debate for another day.

I thought there were few differences about foreign policy per se last night, with the President getting the usual incumbent's advantage of claiming experience. What worries me more (as a Romney leaner) is that he wants to increase Defense spending, while the upcoming generation is going to require budget cuts across the board. The USA used to represent 40% of the world's economy and our defense spending still reflects that figure, even though our share of worldwide GDP is now 20%.

Thanks for this.  Romney on defense spending, like Romney on taxes, was the man who had to beat a tribe of conservatives to win the Republican nomination.  His positions on those issues may have helped him then, but he obviously has decided they won't help him now. So they've changed.

I already made up my mind who I'm going to vote for. Besides, I don't believe what either have to say. I'm saturated with half truths and lies.

I did watch it, but I too felt saturated with half- and semi-truths.  So did my colleague Richard Cohen, to whose excellent column on the debate we will link here.  I've written already about some of Romney's positions. How about Obama on Chinese tires? The ban on cheap Chinese tire imports that he boasted about last night may have saved 1200 American jobs for a while, according to a study at the Peterson Institute of International Economics. But it prompted a counter-ban from China on the import of American chicken parts that cost American farmers $1 billion. And American consumers spent a billion or more on more expensive tires. And the administration quietly dropped the tire tarriff recently, according to the NY Times.

Do you think we will ever get a Lincoln-Douglas style debate?

We will not. Those debates lasted for HOURS. We now have attention spans measurable in seconds. 

Mr. Kaiser, You are saying that Mitt Romney is just like other politicians who might waffle here and there. Oh, come on, for pete's sake, that is NOT what Romney has done in this campaign! He has completely denied positions he has taken, on everything from pre-existing conditions, to the auto bailout, to taxes. This is something new, and I feel like journalists have let us down for not calling it what it is: craven and unprecedented (at least in scope) lying.

I'm sorry if you got that impression. I didn't intend it. All politicians do waffle, in my experience, but Romney is indeed in an exalted class when it comes to changing his positions. I was most struck by an example that never got much attention: his decision earlier this month to say that he no longer believed what he said at that Boca Raton fundraiser about the 47% of Americans who don't pay federal income tax.  He told Fox News, in effect, "never mind, that was wrong."  Go to You Tube and look at the entire Romney speech to that fundraiser, and tell me you think what he said there was something the didn't really believe.

The response POTUS gave was that have "fewer" bayonets...so obviously the reader heard what he wanted to hear....

as usual, alas.

We are facing an environmental crisis far more serious than the economic or middle east crisis, and yet by my count I have seen eactly zero discussion of this emergency in the debates--and I am sure it is not because Obama and Romney agree on the nature of the problem or the solutions. The closest anyone came was energy policy, in which Romney criticized Obama for not being more in love with coal. What do you make of this? We've probably gone past the point where we can prevent catastrophe, but it would be nice if the two candidates for the most powerful position in the world would at least start to address mitigation.

Thank you for this.  The country faces enormous problems, so does the world.  Most of them are never mentioned in this campaign. This is a prime example. I fear that we get the government and the politics that we deserve.  I wish I could convince myself this wasn't the case...

I don't think it's so much that he turned the debate into an infomercial, as that he merely appeared like many Americans think their president should. Romney was a white man of a certain age who spoke with apparent knowledge and confidence about a range of issues. All while the actual president rhetorically flailed about. The substance of what was actually being said was secondary. Romney's ability to argue any position as though he's held it for years meant that people who don't pay attention to details and facts saw nothing wrong with his performance.

Another good observation. Thanks.

I wish the president had brought up that 17 or so of Romney's foreign policy advisers were on the Bush team. Sure, Romney is flexible now -- just wait until this dogmatic team takes control. I'd be very concerned about another war like Iraq.


Most of us Canadians, including myself, like and support Obama.That being said, I am disappointed with Obama's debates; he just repeats the same stuff over and over. Doesn't he have writers for some things? If so, they should be fired. I know that they don't know beforehand the questions but really, he just sounds like a broken record lately. As for Romney, can't stand the guy and that ever-present half smirk that is forever glued on his face.

A different precinct heard from...

It's likely that Romney's limitations, which kept him trying to drag the subject back to domestic politics, owe to real limitations and inexperience. I don't know why Obama was so ready to oblige Romney's fallback to safety and follow him there. Nor do I understand why Bob Schieffer restricted most of the discussion to the Middle East and the military, as though that's all the foreign policy worthy of being discussed or that Americans are capable of caring about. What about climate change, energy and geopolitics, immigration, drug war policy, the Eurozone and currency wars? This was the least informative debate in memory, except it did tell us almost too much about how vacant the discourse in the US has become, especially among the political class.

Good comments, thanks. But I think both candidates are convinced that domestic issues will be much more important in voters' final decisions than any concerns about foreign affairs.

One of Romney's sons is reportedly involved with a voting machine company which, apparently, supplies voting machines in swing-state Ohio, inter alia.

Here's where the voting machine business comes from, evidently.

Out of time.  Thanks to all for taking part, and I apologize again for failing to get to many of your posts. We'll do this again. 

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Robert G. Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser is Associate Editor of The Washington Post.
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