The instant polling after last night’s final debate surprised me. I thought it was a push, but voters clearly preferred President Obama’s foreign policy positions. (More)

I didn’t see much that seemed noteworthy in last night’s final presidential debate. Aside from a devastatingly effective riposte by President Obama on the size of our navy – more on that below – most of the debate seemed to consist of President Obama explaining intricate details of foreign policy and Mitt Romney replying with variations of “I agree with the smart guy beside me, but I would be tougher. Somehow.”

Okay, Romney never actually said that. Instead, he said things like “I would have done the same thing,” or “I agree with the president on that,” almost always followed with “But I would act from a position of strength.”

Romney never quite explained what a “position of strength” would be. I’m not sure it means anything other than his belief that he has a more forceful personality, coupled with the standard Republican tactic of trying to portray Democratic presidents as weak. But when it came down to specific policy choices – sanctions and negotiations to halt Iran’s nuclear program, support for Arab Spring revolutions Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, working to identify moderate factions to support in Syria, or pressing China to deal more fairly in trade – time and again Romney said he would do exactly what President Obama has been doing. Except it would work better because Romney would act from that “position of strength.”

The rhetorical high point came after Romney claimed that, under President Obama, our navy had fewer ships than in 1916. Here was President Obama’s brilliant response:

But I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You – you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets – (laughter) – because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships. It’s – it’s what are our capabilities.

That woke up the Twitterverse, prompting over 100,000 tweets per minute. Before that, and after, apart from both candidates repeating domestic policy points they made in previous debates, it was … President Obama explaining intricate details of foreign policy and Mitt Romney saying “I agree with the smart guy, but I would be tougher. Somehow.”

Perhaps I underestimated the average viewer. Or perhaps the average viewer had long since switched over to the Chicago Bears defeat the Detroit Lions 13-7 on Monday Night Football, or the San Francisco Giants rout the St. Louis Cardinals 9-0 to wrap up the National League pennant.

Regardless, the viewers that stayed through to the end of the debate recognized that President Obama clearly had the better grasp of foreign policy, with a CNN/ORC showing him a 48-40 winner, CBS finding a 53-23 margin, Public Policy Polling favoring President Obama by 53-42 in eleven swing states, and a Google consumer survey giving the president a 45-35 win.

New York Times poll maven Nate Silver doubts President Obama will get a big bounce from the debate, but notes that even a small boost could matter:

Mr. Obama was roughly a 70 percent Electoral College favorite in the FiveThirtyEight forecast in advance of the debate, largely because he has remained slightly ahead in polls of the most important swing states.

If Mr. Obama’s head-to-head polling were 2 points higher right now, he would be a considerably clearer favorite in the forecast, about 85 percent. A 1-point bounce would bring him to 80 percent, and even a half-point bounce would advance his position to being a 75 percent favorite in the forecast.

Rather than hope, I suggest we all do our Get Out The Vote work. Research shows a GOTV edge can mean up to 3 points on election day, which means what we do on the telephone and in our communities over the next two weeks will matter more than what happened on television last night.


Happy Tuesday