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An Unspinnable Debate

How Romney won a clear victory in Denver.

Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Referendum is naturally associated with lying low and trying to target independents piecemeal (women in particular). From this point of view, articulating big, bold plans at this stage represents nothing more than intellectual chest-thumping that is disconnected from politics on the ground. The independents want a more conciliatory candidate who can work with the other side. The choice school contends that it is only by laying out a big, bold alternative program that a challenger can persuade and motivate voters, including the independents and undecideds who hold the balance.

Romney found the sweet spot here. He did make big appeals in the debate, moving far more to the choice position than he had in recent weeks. Yet when the opportunity was presented to embrace the logic of the referendum position, he took it too.

The plain fact is that many of the voters who are undecided at this point are the very ones who are sick of deadlock and partisan conflict. Partisans and “big idea” people may think what they will, but this feeling in the electorate was a significant reason for Obama’s appeal in 2008. Romney captured the postpartisan mantle from Obama at the point where the president brought out what he thought was his trump card, commending Mitt Romney for initiating Romneycare. Romney took the compliment, insisted on some of the differences with Obama-care, and then showed how he had passed his program in Massachusetts working with a legislature that was 87 percent Democratic. The Frank Luntz focus group of independents found this to be one of the most appealing moments in the debate. Romney’s supposed Achilles’ heel, after his political ACL surgery, has turned into one of his greatest strengths.  

These two themes—a leader whose empathy comes from strength and conviction and a person whose bold plans are not in tension with a temperament conducive to bipartisanship—are the “takeaways” from last week that can put Mitt Romney on the path to victory.

James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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