Oct. 7, 2012: Presidential Debates: Romney Takes Round One

Last week, I said that Mitt Romney “needs a big win” in the presidential debates, as his opponent, Barack Obama, was building his lead in several critical swing state polls. And it looks like Romney may have gotten just that. Over the past few weeks, Romney spent countless hours preparing for his first clash with Obama — the incumbent, in contrast, famously complained two days beforehand that preparation was “a drag. They’re making me do my homework” — and Romney’s strategy paid dividends Wednesday night as more than 70 million people watched him dominate the sitting president.

Romney appeared to be energized entering the debate, immediately taking control and keeping Obama on the defensive throughout the affair while repeatedly hammering his rival on the weak economy and high employment. While Obama at times tried to wax professorial, it was Romney who took him to school, making him look frustrated with the proceedings at times and unsure of himself at others. You can watch the full 90-minute debate below.

Some analysts said that while Romney’s win was important for him, it was hardly a game changer, as one bad night for Obama should not decide the presidency. Nonetheless, recent polls suggest that Obama’s lead in the polls may be evaporating after the most=watched presidential debate in 20 years. The two candidates are now essentially tied in Ohio, with Obama’s lead down to one percentage point in the Rasmussen poll (within its margin of error) after he previously led by as much as 8% of the vote; a We Ask America poll instead has Romney with the one point lead. Romney saw substantial gains in Florida and Virginia as well, gaining two and four points, respectively, to reverse Obama’s one- and two-point leads. In the nationwide Rasmussen tracking poll collected from Wednesday through Friday, Romney suddenly took a two-point lead (still within the margin of error) after consistently trailing for weeks.

It should be noted that Rasmussen’s polls have been more generous than others toward Romney throughout the campaign cycle (see my stratified sampling explanation from two weeks ago), but the gains themselves still appear to be legitimate.

The question remains, of course, whether this shift in the polls will last until election day, or whether it will erode as the dust settles. A Friday report by the U.S. Labor Department, which cited an unexpected 0.3% drop in unemployment rates in September, complicates this issue. (This report has been widely scrutinized by Republicans, in part because the unemployment rate itself misses anyone who has given up looking for work; other charges include allegations of forged data and faulty sampling.) Regardless, Romney at least has to be pleased with the post-debate turnaround as the Obama campaign looks for answers. With the combination of the debate and the jobs report swaying voters, though, it may take a few days before we get a clear picture of any momentum shifts moving forward.

Needless to say, David Axelrod, the president’s top campaign advisor, pledged on Thursday that there would be “adjustments” to his debate strategy. We’ll see exactly what changes he makes for the second presidential debate, scheduled for October 16, which will cover domestic and foreign policy in a town hall format. In the meantime, we can look forward to this Thursday’s vice presidential debate between running mates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. There’s some concern from both sides, however, about whether voters will tune in to view the later debates, an issue that a number of analysts pondered before the Wednesday showdown (see below). It’s possible that Obama missed his one chance to shut down Romney, much like George W. Bush’s similar unpreparedness and impatience in the first 2004 debate against John Kerry caused his massive pre-debate lead to disintegrate and almost cost him the election.

If there was a clear bright side for Obama in the past week, it was the announcement that his campaign and the Democratic National Committee raised a combined $181 million in September. This figure shattered the record for the 2012 election cycle; the previous two high marks were Obama’s $114 million and Romney’s $111 million in August. While this take was still well short of the $191 million that Obama’s team and the DNC raised in September 2008, the news still bolstered Democrats’ spirits after the disappointing first debate.

Let’s switch gears to a lighter subject. The major league baseball regular season ended on Wednesday, the same night as the first presidential debate. With the close of the season, Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers made history by winning the coveted Triple Crown in the American League. It’s the first time since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 that any player topped his league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in during one season. Cabrera finished the year with a .330 batting average and 139 RBIs. He also edged out the Texas Rangers’ Josh Hamilton and the New York Yankees’ Curtis Granderson in home runs, swatting 44 to Hamilton’s and Granderson’s 43.

Even the Kansas City Royals fans applauded Cabrera's curtain call.

And yet, while Cabrera became only the 15th player in history to win baseball’s triple crown, and the first in the past 45 years to do so, some fans and analysts argue that he isn’t the AL’s Most Valuable Player this year. According to them, Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels is a better choice based on newer sabermetric statistics like Wins Above Replacement (WAR), particularly as it relates to his defense, an area in which Cabrera is much weaker. These analysts say that the old-school statistics like home runs, batting average, and RBIs, are outdated measures that give a woefully incomplete picture of a player’s true value. But it’s still hard to argue with such a historic achievement when making the case for statistics that are arguably just driven by the sabermetric fad.

We’ll find out the results of MVP balloting in the coming weeks, but we’re already seeing stunning results from the MLB playoffs. This year began baseball’s new playoff format, with two extra teams and a “wild card round” to open the postseason. In the National League Wild Card Game, the St. Louis Cardinals won the one-game showdown against the Atlanta Braves on Friday in a comeback 6-3 victory fueled by three Atlanta errors. But the box score hardly told the whole story.

With Atlanta down three runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Braves got runners on first and second with only one out. The batter, Andrelton Simmons, worked his way into a full count before popping up the ball to shallow left field. As Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma and left fielder Matt Holliday both converged on the dropping baseball, though, they got confused about who was calling for the catch. Kozma had closed on the ball and positioned himself to catch it, but at the last second, he veered away to let Holliday make the grab, even though the left fielder was nowhere near it. So the miscommunication led to the ball dropping between the fielders, and all the runners advanced. Just like that, the Braves had the bases loaded with only one out.

Except that they didn’t. In the last second before Kozma veered away and the ball struck the grass, left field umpire Sam Holbrook invoked the infield fly rule, so Simmons was automatically ruled out. That decision cost the Braves a key baserunner and gave the Cardinals a free out with which to work.

The somewhat confusing infield fly rule, which is designed to protect the offensive team, basically works as follows. If runners are on base, and a pop-up is hit such that a fielder can catch it with fairly normal effort, the umpire may rule the ball to be caught. This prevents trickery by a fielder who may purposely not catch a routine pop-up. Otherwise, in a situation like the one we saw Friday night, Kozma could have let the ball drop while the baserunners remained on first and second, then tried to quickly turn a double play before they could advance. But such a call has to be made early enough for the runners to react accordingly, and it demands that the catch require only routine effort. This last-second call had no real benefit for the offense, even though protecting the offense is the entire reason for the infield fly rule’s existence.

As some analysts later pointed out, the infield fly rule is basically a judgment call, and even the lateness of this call fell within the confines of the rule: “When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare Infield Fly for the benefit of the runners.” This was not readily apparent until Kozma finally camped under the ball, so that’s why Holbrook made the call then, even though it ultimately came just as Kozma moved back away from the spot. But Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez angrily ran from the dugout to argue with the umpires, eventually lodging an official protest against the call.

But even that’s not the full story. Because while the Braves themselves were upset enough over the ruling, their fans went absolutely ballistic, lobbing cans and bottles onto the field to express their disgust. One of the umpires was struck by a liquor bottle, and the umpiring crew had to move their discussion to the center of the field in order to remain out of the fans’ throwing range. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny ordered his team to return to the dugout for their own safety, and the game was delayed for 19 minutes while Braves crew members collected the garbage. The long delay forced Matheny to change pitchers, bringing in his closer earlier than he had intended, and it cast a pall over the first-ever wild card game, which St. Louis claimed a few outs later.

Every dot you see here is a piece of trash that an angry fan threw.

I... would not want to stand this close to an angry mob.

The Braves’ protest was denied before play even resumed, as only an outright misapplication of a rule can be overturned; judgment calls cannot. So the Cardinals move on to face the Washington Nationals in the National League Division Series. This game was almost certainly the last for 40-year-old veteran Chipper Jones, who announced his retirement from the game earlier this season. Perhaps that’s the most disgusting thing of all: that his own fans did more than the umpires to tarnish his final game, literally trashing the field in his final outing. As Bleacher Report columnist Ryan Rudnansky said,

What Braves fans should have realized on Friday was that they were essentially throwing trash on the game Jones loved and basically littering a field he called home.

Let me put it this way: When the time comes for you to be seen out of your workplace, would you like it if your coworkers started throwing garbage at you?

Oh, right. There was another game on Friday, wasn’t there? Right. So, in the American League Wild Card Game, the Baltimore Orioles continued their Cinderella season by ousting the other AL wild card, the Texas Rangers, 5-1. They’ll play the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series. Elsewhere, the two remaining Division Series started last night, with the Detroit Tigers beating the Oakland Athletics 3-1 in Game 1, and the San Francisco Giants facing the Cincinnati Reds in their first game of the series in the evening.

The MLB website said that this postseason, which debuted the new 10-team playoff format, “definitely has a different ring to it.” Uh, yeah, no kidding.

Over in the hockey world, the NHL owners and their players are planning more talks for the coming week, but their failure to resolve their collective bargaining agreement dispute has already forced the league to cancel all 82 games over the first two weeks of the season. Both sides have asked the other to draft a new proposal before the next meeting, which could either signal that they’re working to reach a middle ground or that negotiations are going nowhere.

While hockey players have a bit more leverage than their counterparts in, say, football or basketball, since hockey professionals could reasonably go abroad to pursue the game, some analysts are saying that the players ought to do the “right thing” and concede negotiations in order to allow the season to begin, even if they could get more for themselves through further negotiations. Others are arguing that the NHL could use this as a reason to expand with additional teams in Canada, particularly since Canadian fans are likely to be especially incensed that the NHL’s lockout is preventing their seven teams from competing.

Finally, we move to college football. Specifically, let’s take a look at Ohio State University. The Buckeyes, as you may recall, are already banned from playing in any bowl games this year due to past NCAA rules violations. So they already didn’t need any more bad headlines.

Cue quarterback Cardale Jones. On Friday, Jones decided that the following tweet was a really good idea:

We ain't come to play SCHOOL!

In fairness, I suppose he really isn’t getting much from his classes, judging by his grasp of the English language.

Jones’ tweet was quickly deleted, along with his entire Twitter account, but numerous media outlets reported his message before it vanished. OSU sent out a statement Friday evening to apologize for Jones’ tweet, “scolding the freshman for embarrassing the university.”

Now, we could ask the question of whether Jones was right. There are university staff and administrators out there who prize their athletic programs enough that they’re willing to compromise any shred of academic integrity. One has to wonder, for instance, what on earth was happening in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill over the past few years. The entire department is still embroiled in a massive academic fraud case over numerous violations from 2007-2011, including dozens of courses with no lectures, no readings, and no class meetings. These courses were taken almost exclusively by student-athletes. In one such class, AFRI 370, the only assignment was a 20-page paper which, judging from various reports, required minimal work by the students and a great deal of effort from the tutors and counselors who wrote the paper for them.

Now, I’m not about to say that OSU has the same problems, and it ought to be emphasized that UNC-Chapel Hill is working to right its wrongs in that area. Cases like that, however, do make some a little more inclined to agree with Jones, however disappointing that may be.

But the issue isn’t even whether or not he was right. It’s more the fact that the tweet itself was downright moronic on multiple levels, even beyond Jones’ creative grammar. For one thing, if he actually had any thoughts about the issue beyond the self-centered, “Wah, class is boring. I wanna play football!” then he would have known that his university, which gives him the opportunity to be part of their football program, couldn’t just abide by his words. We can debate the validity of the term “student-athlete” all day, but OSU staff still have to try on the “student” side (or at the very least, act like they’re trying). The whole notion of a student-athlete is, at least supposedly, that an individual is going to school while being an athlete, not one or the other. Jones’ public dismissal of education itself just doesn’t mix with that. Instead it puts the magnifying class back on the people who choose to let him be part of their program. As one critic put it, “That kind of attitude has no place in college, and frankly no place in sports.”

If nothing else, most college athletes who haven’t yet signed professional contracts would probably appreciate some kind of education, just in case they’re one of the many who will “go pro in something other than sports.”

And here’s the really amazing part. Jones, the guy who thinks that the purpose of college is football, who doesn’t want to do anything at college other than play football… hasn’t played any college football.

If you’re a football fan who didn’t recognize the name Cardale Jones, don’t be ashamed. The freshman is OSU’s third-string quarterback, behind starter Braxton Miller and backup Kenny Guiton. Jones has yet to play a single down this year, and some speculate that he may be redshirting during his freshman season. If repercussions are about to be handed down, it’s always possible (however unlikely) that the plan may change. OSU has suffered enough media headaches over the past year that the university can’t be happy about dealing with this newest black eye, regardless of how highly touted a high school prospect Jones may have been last year. We’ll see.

Well, this was a sports-heavy post this week, but that’s just how it happened with the news stories that were out there. Let’s just close this with my favorite response to Cardale’s tweet, which came from @OSUArtProfGrieg:

@cordale10 While I undrstand ur frustration, Cardale, I’ve told every1 in Drawing 200– and reminded u ysterdy– plz feel free 2 use pencil shrpner w/o asking/yelling/Tweeting

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