Don’t Buy into the Hysteria: This Election Isn’t about a Debate

Long before this week’s Presidential debate, the contours of this election had already been set. Despite the near hysterical and, at times, irritatingly silly reactions from pundits, right and left, the debate itself added very little that will impact the ultimate outcome of the contest.

It was like watching a Yankees/Red Sox series game. Both sides watched and cheered for their team. One side came away a bit more excited, the other a bit deflated, but no one changed the side they are on.

Putting aside the exaggerated reactions of media commentators "Romney triumphed" or "Obama blew it"–”the debate, itself, was quite boring. Like the impact of former President Bill Clinton’s convention address that boosted Democrat’s morale, Romney’s performance might provide a "shot in the arm" to depressed Republicans, many of whom have been troubled by their candidate and his lackluster campaign. Mood changer, yes; but not a "game changer."

More important than the debate are several factors that have defined the political landscape in 2012.

First and foremost among these, are the basic demographics of the electorate. On the Democratic side, there is the dramatic increase in "minority voters". Two decades ago, this group comprised less than 20% of all voters. Today, they may be as high as 29%. Estimates are that 80% will vote for President Obama. Add to this group, young voters, educated professional women, and, as my brother John notes, "the creative class"–”and you have the Democratic coalition–”not exactly the dependent "takers" of Mitt Romney’s imagined 47%.

The core of the Republican coalition is increasingly white, middle aged and older, and male – with many within this group over-lapping with "Born Again" Christians. It was from within this demographic that the Tea Party was born, and the impact they have had on this year’s contest has been substantial. After flexing their muscles delivering a Republican takeover of Congress in 2010, the emboldened Tea Party helped shape the field of 2012 GOP presidential aspirants. More moderate Republicans were discouraged from entering the contest and the positions of those who did run bordered on the extreme in order not to alienate this aggressive hard line movement. Many of the statements made by Romney during the first Presidential debate would have had him booed off the stage during the Republican primary.

Two other landscape definers in the 2012 election resulted from Supreme Court decisions. The "Citizens United" case opened the door for the obscene amounts of money–”much of it unreported–”that is allowing the so-called Super PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations to fill the airways with mostly negative ads. Likewise, the decision by the Court to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act has meant that the President’s signature legislative accomplishment, though still a point of contention, is not the central issue being contested/defended in this year’s debate.

Three additional events have played a significant role in defining this election. Latinos had been frustrated by the failure of the Administration to make a priority of immigration reform. The White House has argued that they lacked the support in Congress to pass the measure. But this past summer, President Obama unilaterally acted to provide temporary relief to the group of undocumented young people who had been brought into the U.S. illegally as children and who now find that through no fault of their own they are at risk of deportation. This reprieve, while initially criticized by Republicans, has impacted the election in two ways. It has energized the all-important Latino vote for Obama. And as the GOP has realized that it was about to be swamped by this growing bloc, they have muted their criticism–”with Mitt Romney now, for all intents and purposes, saying that he will uphold the President’s action.

Much the same can be said of President Obama’s decision to end the policy of "don’t ask, don’t tell", which discriminated against gays serving in the U.S. military and his late recognition of equal marriage rights for gays. It is not just that gays comprise a substantial part of the liberal electorate. It is also clear that respect for their equal rights has become a litmus test of sorts among young voters.

The final "landscape setter" for this year’s contest was Mitt Romney’s now-infamous "47%" video. For months Democrats had been working to define Romney as an elitist who was "out of touch with working class Americans". The recording of Romney’s off the cuff remarks before an audience of well-heeled donors has been played over and over with Romney, in effect, defining himself as an "out of touch" elitist.

These are the major factors that set the stage for this election, not the debate. Though they may try, the "group think" feeding frenzy of the pundits will shape headlines for a night or two, but will not alter the landscape. Clinton’s clear articulation of Obama’s agenda may have inspired already supportive Obama voters, just as Romney’s breathlessly desperate performance in the first debate proved a shot in the arm to his supporters. But I doubt that in the long term either of these substantially alter the size or composition of the either candidate’s support base.