When the debate ends and the candidates step off the podium, a chorus of political analysts will begin to battle about whether Romney won and, if so, whether he won by enough to make a difference. But while the pundits will consider who made the best arguments or came out with the best sound bite, it’s the big picture that should really frame assessments of whether Romney wasn’t just good, but good enough. The question is whether Romney can make progress toward fixing his favorability problem.
The polls disagree about just how bad Romney’s favorability problem really is, but the balance of polls makes it quite clear that he has a favorability problem. On average, Romney's favorability ratings are net negative by about 5 points and some polls even show that Romney enters the debates with worse favorability rating than any major party candidate since at least 1984. No modern candidate has secured the presidency with a net-negative favorability rating, and this probably lies at the heart of his failure to advance beyond the voters who outright disapprove of the president's performance.
And Romney's favorability rating isn't just due to an abstract dislike of the guy, it's underpinned by a series of (for lack of a better word) character problems. Polls routinely show that a majority of Americans doubt whether Romney understands the problems of people like them, believes he would privilege the rich over the middle class, and don’t consider him especially likable. Perhaps most strikingly, many of his own supporters appear to harbor these doubts about Romney, so one might wonder what the persuadable voters think. It's worth recalling that this is an unusual problem. Kerry's favorability ratings were far higher than Romney's, which makes it pretty clear that you don't have to be a stellar candidate to get voters to think you're a decent guy.
If Romney can’t begin to chip away at these problems in tonight’s debate, he’s probably going to lose the election. Americans are disappointed in the president’s performance, but this sentiment alone appears insufficient to propel Romney to victory since, despite the economy, Obama holds 49 percent of the vote. For that same reason, it's possible that Romney just can't change the outcome without an external event, a systemic polling failure, or a colossal error on the president's part, even if Romney appears as likable, empathetic, and competent as he’s ever been. But what is absolutely clear is that Romney will not have the chance merited by the circumstances if the polls continue to show that Americans hold an unfavorable impression of him and doubt whether he cares about them or the middle class. Judge Romney’s performance, at least in part, by considering whether Romney might have made meaningful progress toward redressing these fundamental problems.