Instant analysis: Presidential debate on foreign policy

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All stops — and bayonets — were pulled out Monday during the final 2012 presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. Below, find out what happened and how it may impact the election results on Nov. 6.

What happened

Tonight’s debate returned to the segment format, with moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS choosing to focus primarily on the Middle East with a few mentions of China. The debate moved swiftly from Libya to Syria to Egypt to Iran, with the candidates expressing similar positions on many issues. GOP Candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama agreed that a military option in Iran should be a last resort only, that the removal of Bashar al-Assad in Syria is important and that the Chinese economy demonstrates the weaknesses of the American manufacturing sector. Thus, the debate came down to rhetoric and argumentation more so than it did content.

Indicating a 180-degree shift from the first debate, Obama was quick to retort when he felt Romney had misspoken or made an invalid point. His tendency to begin statements by saying that Romney’s were “simply not true” remained irksome, but he refused to ignore flips in Romney’s positions, such as support for the Iraq War and the bailout of the automotive industry. Romney, on the other hand, had several opportunities to attack Obama, especially concerning his positions on Israel, yet he did not do so. Instead, he turned to an old argument — Obama’s “apology tour” in the Middle East during his first year in office — to point out weaknesses in the president’s policies.

Although this debate was intended to focus on foreign policy, it only took half an hour for the focus to shift to the economy. While the issue was initially framed as one of strengthening the U.S. at home before helping other countries, it quickly turned into a replay of previous weeks’ discussions of deficit reduction and investment in education. Schieffer’s attempts to get the candidates back on topic were not wholly successful, as the return to foreign affairs only happened when he switched to a new segment. The end of the debate devolved into a discussion about teachers and the federal government’s role in schools — a puzzling conclusion for a foreign policy debate.

Despite an ambiguous quip from Romney that “it’s nice to maybe be funny this time, not on purpose,” there was plenty to laugh about in tonight’s debate. Perhaps most notably, President Barack Obama pointed out in response to Romney’s comments about reductions in the Navy since 196 that the U.S. also has fewer bayonets and horses than it did in 1916. Much like the infamous “binders full of women” comment last week, “bayonets and horses” has already spawned satirical Twitters and Tumblrs.

Read a transcript of the debate here.

Who won

Obama’s lackluster performance in the first debate set him back initially, while Romney’s confidence surprised many voters in a positive way. As October went on, however, Obama improved while Romney stayed static. Tonight’s Obama bore little resemblance to the disinterested, disengaged candidate who debated domestic policy on Oct. 3.

Both candidates continued to lack specifics in describing their policies, but Romney did not take full advantage of this to point out the strengths in his plans. Nor did he do himself any favors by attempting more complex analysis of Middle Eastern affairs, painting Syria as Iran’s “gateway to the sea” and ignoring the competing factions within Syria that are only united by their hatred for Assad. His attempts to turn the debate towards domestic policy, on which he presents stronger positions, were somewhat successful while they lasted, but in the area of international affairs, Romney was unable to compensate for the fact that he lacks foreign policy experience compared to Obama.

A flash poll from CBS found that 53 percent of uncommitted voters thought that Obama had won, while 23 percent thought that victory was Romney’s. A similar poll from CNN found somewhat less discrepant results, with 48 percent of registered voters saying that Obama won and 40 percent saying that Romney did.

What it means

After the first debate, polls showed that 67 percent of voters felt that Romney was the winner. This number dropped between 27 and 44 percentage points, depending on the source, in polls after tonight’s debate. Conversely, Obama jumped between 23 and 28 percentage points, from 25 percent to somewhere between 48 and 53 percent. Again, this is likely due less to slip-ups by Romney than it is to Obama having finally found his footing. This image of growing strength will help propel him into Election Day. Still, Romney demonstrated a consistency in presentation that will be appealing to many voters. Whoever wins on Nov. 6, the race will be close.

It remains important to remember that presidential debates rarely have much of an effect on election outcomes. In only two cases has the person trailing come from behind after the debates to win the presidency: the 1960 election between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy and the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The latest polls show Obama ahead by anywhere from 2 to 6 percentage points, which is not significantly different from the situation before the debate. There is still plenty of time for either side to commit gaffes or encounter unexpected situations that could tilt the race before Election Day, however.

Knox will hold an all-campus election night party to view results and hear commentary from professors from 7 to 10 p.m. in the Taylor Lounge. Check The Knox Student website for updates throughout the night.

Editor-in-chief Anna Meier is also the vice president of the Knox Democrats.

Tags:  debates Election 2012 foreign policy libya obama presidential debates romney syria

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