Could Obama’s Debate Performance Deflate His Base?

For last night’s debate, one could argue that President Obama brought talking points to a knife fight. Though, I don’t think he was even that well-prepared. His performance ranged from scattered to irritated to meek and stood in stark contrast to Mr. Romney. The governor appeared calm, confident and ready which helped gloss over what was a truly breathtaking reinvention of his policy positions.

One question remains: will it affect voters and do the numbers shift? My colleague Bill Galston wrote last night that he expects the race to tighten, and I agree. Last night’s debate likely pushes some undecided voters toward Romney, while Obama’s numbers remain (statistically) unchanged.

A much more critical question hasn’t been asked but must: Was Obama’s performance deflating for his core supporters? In the short term, I argue yes. Having watched the debate with a group of people, among them what can be described as core supporters, “deflated” may be the most positive description.

If malaise washes over the base, the effect can be substantial, but not in the way one might expect. No, Democratic voters won’t stay home. No, Democratic donors won’t stop sending money to Chicago. But what about grassroots volunteers who the Obama groundgame depends on so thoroughly? This group feeds on hope and change; their elixir is Obama’s inspiring, lofty rhetoric. They knock on doors, phonebank, drive people to polls and conduct visibility with an enthusiasm born not wholly from Democratic ideals, but from an emotional connection to the man. Last night that enthusiasm, that fire, that emotion was as vacant from the president’s performance as it was from the hearts of debate viewers who love him the most. If the president wants a second term, this error must be corrected quickly.

After last night’s debate, Mr. Obama’s biggest worry is not whether Gallup or Rasmussen finds that 2-3% of the electorate shifted toward Mr. Romney. Ironically, he has to worry about those people who support him most—the diehard segment of that 47%.

Mr. Obama, today, you need to address your faithful. They woke up this morning as nervous and bewildered as when they went to bed. Your first job is to restore that faith. Tomorrow, you can worry about Virginia.