Are You In?

October 11, 2012 9:51 a.m.

As I noted this morning, a rush of swing state polls out over the last 24 hours showed Barack Obama with a diminished but real lead in states he needs to win to be reelected. It will also be key to see what comes out of the debate tonight between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden — one in which I think the sitting Veep is significantly underestimated.

But over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the Obama campaign’s most favored taglines: “Are you in?” I think I remember a related one — though this may have been my brain riffing on ‘are you in’ — that hit something like ‘Do You Have Barack’s Back?’These are powerful slogans for the kind of candidate and president Obama is and the kind his supporters want him to be.

But more than anything else last week’s debate left Obama’s supporters thinking just that: “Are you in?”

Yes, clearly, Romney’s performance (coupled with Obama’s) pumped up and solidified Romney’s support. It led weak Obama supporters to think again and consider Romney. But in a base election, in a turn-out election, there’s simply no underestimating the level of demoralization Obama put into his supporters with that debate performance. I can see it palpably in reader emails from people who support the president. But it goes well beyond disappointment. It’s something more akin to soldiers going into battle and then looking over their shoulder to see the commander has turned around and is going the other way.

Supporters will fight like crazy for a leader or candidate who’s fighting, who’s in it, even against merciless mistreatment, even well after it looks like the odds are impossibly long.

There are deep bonds of mutual trust that go into leadership, even if it’s trust between people who have never met or spoken and never will. I’ll do this and you’ll do that. And I’ll do this even before you do that or without being able to see what you do because I trust you and you’ll do it eventually. And you can do it. This is the glue that can hold millions of people together.

I think Obama’s supporters have little doubt the Obama they thought they were supporting can win this campaign. But where is he?

I have no idea just what went into Obama’s performance. And it’s basically irrelevant to question whether supporters should have been so affected. They were. But his supporters had gotten themselves all pumped up that the last four years were great (as a presidency) even if dismal in many ways for the country and that Mitt Romney wants to do things that would be terrible for the country. And yet President Obama seemed only half to have bought into either idea.

Obama’s supporters were all pumped up because they thought they’d see Barack Obama and give the stuff right to Romney but he didn’t. And his speech at the convention was not exactly rollicking either.

This is why that next debate really is incredibly important.

The 1984 election was a landslide election and it was pretty clear through the whole cycle that it would be. But at the first debate Reagan seemed tired and a bit confused. Given his age that really got people thinking. He came back in the next debate solid and basically that was the end of the election. I noted that the polls suggest Obama is damaged but still in a good position. If he can come back and be strong and make his supporters think they’re behind a fighter I think the first debate recedes into the background and the race is on. But that’s critical. It’s not about winning so much as coming to play. Is he in?

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