President Barack Obama may have lost the first debate the minute he appeared on stage in Denver. Just by showing up, he changed the terms of the campaign. Viewers immediately saw the election as a referendum on the president. The decision became whether to fire him or rehire him.
This was bound to happen sooner or later. It always happens when an incumbent is running for reelection. Until the Oct. 3 debate, Democrats had made a vigorous, and mostly successful, effort to turn the election into a choice rather than a referendum: Which guy do you like better — Obama or Mitt Romney?
Democrats managed to demonize Romney as a rich guy totally out-of-touch with ordinary Americans. Romney made it easier for them by constantly calling attention to his wealth. Democrats went after Romney’s business record, his flip-flops and his efforts to pander to the extreme right. It was working. Last month, Romney had the most negative public image of any presidential candidate in at least 25 years, according to the Pew Research Center.
Democrats have to rally the base in order to win. The Democratic base includes a lot of voters who don’t usually turn out in large numbers — minorities, young people, recent immigrants. Many feel disappointed and frustrated with Obama. One way to rally the base is to drive up fear of the alternative: If Romney becomes president, he will shred the social safety net and kill Big Bird.
The Democratic strategy was working. Until the first debate. Once Obama stepped onto that stage, the election was about him.