Romney was seen as the loser of the debate by most pundits, all instant polls, and a focus group. And yet, he did not lose the debate the debate like Obama lost the first one. How can this be? All of the evidence points to one thing, but most of the media is saying a different thing. Mitt Romney moderated many of his positions at the third presidential debate to make himself sound more like President Obama, saying they agreed on Iraq withdrawal, pushing Hosni Mubarak out of Egypt, and the Libya intervention. Romney suggested Iran, which is not landlocked, needs Syria for a "route to the sea." The answer is simple: unlike after the first debate -- when a ton of liberals wailed that Obama had blown it -- and unlike after the second debate -- when Republicans looked pained and whined that Obama was too mean -- Republicans did not go all over cable news and cry that Romney lost last night.
It was so easy to declare winners in the first two debates because one side looked sad and the other side looked happy. In the first debate, Obama seemed to have no energy and didn't really engage with Romney's argument. His loss was turned into a total election disaster by liberal panic amongpeople like The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan. While Obama's responsible for his performance at that debate, the blame for the lasting political impact belongs somewhere else: the Democrats who played right into the "game changing" narrative with their panic attack.
After the second debate, there was some conservative complaining that Romney destroyed the Republican attack on Obama's handling of Benghazi. The Daily Show captured the post-debate sentiment by showing the faces of the anchors of the cable networks -- a happy MSNBC, a pained Fox News (left). But after the third debate, everyone claimed victory. Conservatives did not go all over TV crying. Glenn Beck was one of the few to seem unhappy, and he merely tweeted that Romney sounded too moderate. ("I am glad to know that Mitt agrees with Obama so much. No, really. Why vote?")
Indeed, by simply not losing horrifically, Romney was declared by some to thereby be the winner. (The logic of the final weeks of a presidential campaign relates to normal logic a little like how quantum physics relates to normal physics: the strange is sometimes true!) The Hill's Christian Heinze put it like this:
Obama probably won this thing on points, but Romney won on proving he's up to the role of president. Meanwhile, Obama failed to shake up the race, so he lost on that score. So you have Obama winning on one score and losing on another, while Romney lost on one score and won on another.
You know what that sounds like? The draw that this debate was.
There are multiple dimensions to this winning and losing thing. Just like string theory.
But why would Obama be the one who needed to shake up the race? National Journal's Charlie Cook explains that Romney is behind in all but one of the six true swing states, and he has to win two-thirds of those votes. But The New Republic's Alec MacGillis argued the media is clinging to the story that Romney has momentum because a comeback makes a much better story than a boring race. New York's Jonathan Chait attributes the it to the Romney campaign's skillful bluffing, pretending to have greater confidence Romney can actually win than their polls actually show in order to create a self-fulfilling narrative.
As usual post-debate, there are a lot of smart takes. But there is disharmony among the smart takes. Since it's sometimes hard to keep track of all the smart takes, here's where they stand:
The leading take: Romney didn't win but he has the momentum.
Top take authors: Politico's Mike Allen, The Hill's Christian Heinze, The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, others. "Romney did well enough that for the first time in six years, Romney folks emailed, 'We’re going to win,'" Allen reported.
The counter-take: What momentum? Romney is still behind in almost all of the swing states he needs to win the electoral college vote.
Top take authors: The Atlantic's James Fallows, The New Republic's Alec MacGillis, New York's Jonathan Chait, The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky, National Journal's Charlie Cook. "Over the last week, Romney’s campaign has orchestrated a series of high-profile gambits in order to feed its momentum narrative," Chait writes. Romney's campaign said it was pulling out of North Carolina it was so confident he'd win the state. Except, in reality, the campaign only moved one staffer. Cook explains that Romney must win two-thirds of tossup states, but Obama is leading in five out of six of them.
The counter-counter-take: The description of a false media narrative is actually itself a false media narrative.
Top take tweeters: BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins, Politico's Alexander Burns. "Libs' new push to convince the press that we've been duped by a phony Mittmentum media narrative smells awfully like a phony media narrative," Coppins tweeted.