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Referendum or Choice, Which Candidate Will Show Fighting Spirit?

The conventional wisdom about this presidential election, which this blog often endorsed, is that it represented a competition between two competing paradigms.

Mitt Romney, this theory held, would seek to make the election a referendum on President Obama’s performance — hoping that voters’ dissatisfaction with the direction of the country in general, and the economy in particular, would lead them to vote him out of office, almost regardless of what the alternative was.

Mr. Obama, it was thought, would seek to frame the election as a choice — defeating Mr. Romney on the basis of his own superior favorability ratings and, perhaps, his strong oratorical and campaigning skills.

Like any theory, this one was an oversimplification: every election is both a referendum and a choice to some degree. But the election mostly played to form in the spring and summer.

Then came the two defining events of the campaign — and both went against type.

At their convention in Charlotte, N.C., Democrats — especially former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. — gave a vigorous defense of Mr. Obama’s performance in office. Although Democrats also took opportunities to tweak Mr. Romney, the gain Mr. Obama made in head-to-head polls after the convention seemed most to be driven by increased voter satisfaction with his performance.

Mr. Obama’s approval ratings improved, rising to about 49 percent, where they remain today — probably just enough to make an incumbent the favorite given a strong turnout. Voter perceptions about the economy, including the consumer confidence numbers, also improved.

Then came the first presidential debate, in Denver. Mr. Romney, for the first time, had the chance to share a stage with the president — and based on the postdebate polls, he defeated Mr. Obama soundly.

While Mr. Romney critiqued Mr. Obama’s performance in office at the debate, he also articulated his own vision for the country — in a clearer way, probably, than he had at his own convention in Tampa, Fla.

Mr. Romney’s favorability ratings shot up after the debate — to the point that they are now net-positive in most surveys and often the equal of Mr. Obama’s. And Mr. Romney has gained in the head-to-head polls to make the presidential race very close, even as Mr. Obama’s approval ratings and favorability numbers held steady.

In Charlotte, in other words, Mr. Obama demonstrated that perhaps he could win a referendum election after all. And in Denver, Mr. Romney showed that he would have a fighting chance even if voters saw the election as a clash of personalities.

So what does this mean for the final debate, on Monday night in Boca Raton, Fla.?

To the extent that foreign policy gives the commander in chief a home-court advantage, the timbre of the debate is probably more up to Mr. Obama. He could tout his own foreign policy accomplishments, which voters tend to rate more highly than his handling of economic affairs. Or he could seek to draw sharper contrasts with Mr. Romney, perhaps hoping to convince voters that Mr. Romney is unready for office.

But so far this year, in both primary and general election debates, the best defense has often been a good offense. Mr. Obama made the mistake in Denver of seeming too willing to rest on his laurels, and what was then a four- or five-point lead in head-to-head polls. What might have seemed like presidential composure in the briefing room came across as aloofness and even disinterestedness in the debate hall.

Even if Mr. Obama thinks he can win a referendum election — and he possibly can — he will need to engage his opponent and show some fighting spirit.

Mr. Romney’s calibration of these moods may be a little different, because his worst moments in the debates have tended to be characterized by his being hot-tempered. Still, Mr. Romney seems to trail Mr. Obama just slightly in the most important swing states, meaning that Mr. Romney will not necessarily benefit from playing the debate to a draw.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.