17/10/2012 10:21 BST | Updated 17/12/2012 05:12 GMT

'Trust Me' - It's About Fear

Trust me! No, I am not citing Mitt Romney, although those two words sum up the substance of his appeal for votes at last night's debate. What I mean is: trust me this election is going to be a cliffhanger.

We can ask who won or lost at Hofstra University, but the more important question going into the town hall style debate was whether Mitt Romney would continue to surge in the polls or whether a strong performance by the president would stop his opponent's momentum and solidify the numbers. The president delivered, so don't expect to see much movement in the numbers.

Where are they? As of this morning, 47% of Americans support President Obama. The same number favours Governor Romney.

Of course 47% is an especially interesting number this year. After all, in a talk before wealthy donors last month Mitt Romney argued that 47% of Americans will vote for President Obama "no matter what." The same 47% of Americans who Romney claimed believe themselves to be victims, pay no income taxes, and refuse to take "personal responsibility or care for their lives." In the meantime, he has been busy assuring voters that in fact his first concern is for the middle class. Given the fact that 9 in 10 Americans believe themselves to belong to the middle class, his focus makes sense. Obama understands the math as well as anyone, which is why he too directed his remarks last night to the middle class.

In reality, the middle class is much smaller than we think and ultimately the election will turn on the votes of two groups: those who have slipped out of the middle class and those who fear their fate. These are the swing voters the candidates need to win. So if you want to understand how the debate might have affected the election, you need to zero in on that fear. Who did a better job last night of addressing the fears of a battered middle class?

Romney was at his most effective when he highlighted the economic facts of the past four years. Too many Americans are out of work, the recovery has been slow and uneven, gas prices are high, and Washington continues to accumulate debt that will saddle future taxpayers. The facts of the past four years scare the middle class. But when it came to explaining what he would do differently, Romney returned to a familiar line: "I know what it takes to get an economy moving." Maybe, but once again, he was short on specifics. Upon closer inspection, Romney's "five point plan" for recovery is little more than a list of goals. How does he plan to achieve them?

Obama played to the fears of the middle class by repeatedly questioning his opponent's sincerity. Romney, the president charged, "doesn't have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan. That plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. That's been his philosophy in the private sector. That's been his philosophy as governor. That's been his philosophy as a presidential candidate."

What scares voters more? The prospect that the next four years will look like the last four, or that Romney stands for a philosophy that holds the country does best when the rich get richer?

This was the essence of what was probably the most important question of the night from the standpoint of the outcome on 6 November: "Governor Romney, I am an undecided voter, because I'm disappointed with the lack of progress I've seen in the last four years. However, I do attribute much of America's economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration. Since both you and President Bush are Republicans, I fear a return to the policies of those years should you win this election. What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?"

Romney's answer? "My priority is jobs. I know how to make that happen." Or to put it another way: I know you're scared, but trust me.