Pre-Gaming the First Debate

I’m not sure if it’s actually possible to 1) have the media invest tonight’s debate with any more importance for the Romney campaign than has been done over the last two weeks; 2) come up with another way to lower expectations for both candidates without reducing all of us to fits of giggles; 3) be any more primed for disappointment than all of us – left, right, center – are right now as we are almost certain to see a debate that is probably not going to deliver a knockout blow to Governor Romney, put President Obama on the defensive and the race back into a dead heat or – for the 11 remaining undecided voters in a swing state – illuminate much about what either client plans to do over the next four years.

It is, of course, possible that I’m wrong on any of these points, particularly #3, but statistics are on my side.  Why are nearly all of the most famous moments from Presidential debates from the 70s and 80s?  Because most of the time these events are not particularly memorable and don’t represent turning points in a campaign.

This reality is particularly true when the participants are Barack “No Drama” Obama and W. Mitt “the Robot” Romney.  While different in many ways, both men are generally very skilled at keeping their emotions in check and their talking points firmly in their forebrains.  Couple that with day…and days…and days…of debate camp and the throw down in Denver has all the suspense of two chessmasters replaying a game from the Fischer-Spassky era.  The image of an unscripted and freeflowing debate is just that; an image and not a reality.

None of this, of course, will prevent me from eagerly watching all 90 minutes and then listening to the post-debate analysis on as many channels as my wife will tolerate me surfing.  Here’s what I think we’ll be hearing after the debate:


On Obama:

  • Fox: “At various points in the debate it was clear to me that the President was visibly struggling to contain his anger and his actual contempt for Governor Romney.  He never actually let himself lose control, but you could see in his posture and in his eyes that he resents even having to share the stage with the Governor.  In his mind, I guess he thinks his re-election should be by universal acclaim and without having to subject himself to the indignity of having to do things like debate.  I give the President maybe a C+ for what I think we’ll see in the clear light of morning was a mediocre performance at best.  I think you also have to conclude that Obama’s weak performance – coupled with what was a good night for Governor Romney – has once again made this a neck-and-neck race to the finish.”
  • MSNBC: “I think you have to give the president at least a B+ and maybe an A- for his performance tonight.  He’s not a great debater – I know that point has been dismissed as spin but it happens to be true – but he definitely brought his A game tonight.  He looked calm, he looked resolute and – above all – he looked presidential.  He had an easy handle on the facts and figures that back up his positions and he used them to great effect.  His answers were crisp and sharp and had clearly benefited from the intense practice sessions leading up to tonight.  He beat back repeated attacks by Governor Romney without losing his cool and never once looked haughty or impatient.”
  • CNN: “Clearly, he did what he had to do tonight and that was – first and foremost – avoid the sort of gaffes and mistakes that could be a distraction for 4 or 5 news cycles.  We saw a candidate who had clearly practiced and was ready for this event and it showed in his answers and in his body language.  I think his supporters are going to be encouraged by his performance tonight, his detractors will scrutinize every second of the 90 minutes for any advantage they might have missed as it was unfolding in real time and for those few undecided voters who were hoping to hear something to finally close the deal, I’m not sure if they got what they needed in a performance that was long on soundbites and broad rhetoric but short on specifics.”

On Romney:

  • Fox: “Game on!  Romney knew the future of his campaign was riding on the outcome of this debate and it showed.  From the first answer, he took the battle to Obama again and again in a polite, respectful but relentless way that put the president on the defensive and kept him there almost all night long.  What we saw tonight is the Mitt Romney conservatives have been looking for – tough, aggressive, unapologetic for his desire to take the country back from the wrong path it’s been on for the last four years.  I think it was also the kind of performance that independents – who really tuned in on this race for the first time tonight – will find attractive.  I’m confident that the polls coming out of this debate are going to show a race that’s back to deadlocked and maybe even advantage Romney.”
  • MSNBC: “I think tonight’s debate is a microcosm of the challenges that have dogged Governor Romney from Day 1.  Yes, he was prepared, but you’d expect that after spending almost two full weeks over the last month in practice sessions, but once again, there’s that likeability gap.  His performance tonight was so scripted, so rehearsed, so lacking in the authentic moments you hope for in a setting like this, that I think it really adds to the narrative that Mitt Romney is just not terribly likeable.  I don’t think he did himself any fatal damage…there was no repeat of the 47% gaffe that was so troublesome for him in September…but I think the damage is more in terms of a lost opportunity.  The first debate is almost always the most watched and Governor Romney just swung and missed at his last, best chance to change the arc of this campaign in its last month.  From here on out the calendar gets very compressed and the number of people out there who haven’t made up their minds, who haven’t voted already, is shrinking rapidly.”
  • CNN: “Clearly, he did what he had to do tonight and that was – first and foremost – avoid the sort of gaffes and mistakes that could be a distraction for 4 or 5 news cycles.  We saw a candidate who had clearly practiced and was ready for this event and it showed in his answers and in his body language.  I think his supporters are going to be encouraged by his performance tonight, his detractors will scrutinize every second of the 90 minutes for any advantage they might have missed as it was unfolding in real time and for those few undecided voters who were hoping to hear something to finally close the deal, I’m not sure if they got what they needed in a performance that was long on soundbites and broad rhetoric but short on specifics.”

Am I right?  Dunno, but it’ll be fun to watch and find out.
– Austin

About Jon Austin

A communications professional based in the Twin Cities with expertise in crisis and issue management, special circumstances and contested events.

26 responses to “Pre-Gaming the First Debate

  1. PM

    I’ll be enjoying myself at the Guthrie….

    Oh, for those of you who are interested in what is going to happen, I would suggest this:

  2. Newt

    Obama looked like he saw a ghost. Poor fella. Game over.

  3. Erik

    That was rough. That’ll cause some liberal pants shitting.

  4. I disagree. The President didn’t tear into Romney, but I don’t think he had to. Remember, the hearts and minds left to compete for are the few in the middle who don’t like extreme partisanship and bickering. Obama’s performance was – I think – calibrated to reach them.

    Now, having said that, I think Romney did what he needed to do – avoid screw ups and to look like a person who could hold his own with the President.

    What did happen, and what you’ll see tomorrow is a hammering on Romney’s abandonment of his tax plan. Obama didn’t challenge him on it, but you can bet the campaign will.

    Scanning the networks, the consensus is that Romney won and Obama lost, but I’m not sure the 3% of the electorate that is still undecided will see it that way.

    It’ll make it interesting over the next couple of weeks.

    – Austin

  5. PM

    Barack Obama’s timid approach to debating—I saw a lot of analogies to a prevent defense in football, but I think it was more like the four corners basketball offense that’s so deadly boring it’s now against the rules—was the most striking element of tonight’s debate, but the most important one is probably that Mitt Romney finally shook the etch-a-sketch tonight and moved to the center.
    With the spotlight on and the pressure in place to define his tax plan, Romney angrily denied the existence of any agenda to reduce federal revenue and conceded that political realities mean he may not be able to cut rates by very much consistent with that agenda. Romney swore to defend single-payer health care for everyone born in 1957 or earlier, touted the universal health care initiative he signed in Massachusetts, promised not to cut federal education spending, defended the role of regulation in building an effective market economy, defended the current structure of Social Security, and charged Obama with failure to crack down adequately on big banks.
    The problem with all of this is exactly what you’d expect the problem to be with an etch-a-sketch move—it’s inconsistent with things he’s committed himself to previously.

    You can’t implement the budget roadmap that Paul Ryan wrote and Mitt Romney endorsed without slashing education spending or gutting federal regulatory agencies. Romney’s promised to repeal Obama’s efforts to bring Massachusetts-style health care nationwide. In the primaries, Romney ran as a bold tax cutter not a “maybe I’ll tinker with the rates if congress wants to” squish. Ryan authored a plan to privatize Social Security and Romney has endorsed similar ideas both in 2004 and in his 2010 book. Romney’s been caught on video angrily ranting to financial backers about 47 percent of Americans being moochers and looters, and staged his entire nominating convention as a paen to business owners rather than ordinary people.
    Obama wasn’t very good at pointing this out tonight. And Romney is nothing if not good at remaking his persona. To be ideologically plastic enough to win a general election in Massachusetts in 2002 and a GOP presidential primary in 2012 is tough. Romney was helped in this by the fact that there was a three-way conspiracy to define “domestic issues” as very narrowly equivalent to tax and budget issues. There was no real talk of the environment, of LGBT equality, of labor unions, of monetary policy, of the regulatory state outside of Dodd-Frank, of immigration, of family life or women’s role in the workforce or any of a host of other issues where it’s difficult to paper over ideological voids. But on the issues they did talk about, Romney succeeded in portraying himself as someone who’s considerably less conservative than John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, or the Mitt Romney who we’ve seen a lot of over the past 18 months. Whether you believe that’s the Mitt Romney who’d show up in the White House in 2013 if he wins in November is a separate question, but the guy we saw tonight is a much more appealing figure than the guy who was on the trail all summer.


    • Erik

      I’ve liked Matty Y a bit more recently, and this piece is fine as far as that goes. But the assumption seems to be we should all be shocked someone has pandered to the base during the primary and then run to the center in the campaign. The indignation is a bit much.

      • PM

        I don’t see any indignation.

        I do think that this is the issue for Obama–can he define Mitt based on what Mitt has said during the GOP primaries, or can Mitt get a free pass to define himself based on what it takes to get elected?

        I’m not certain painting Mitt as a flip flopper will do the trick.

      • Erik

        Fair enough, and I concur.

  6. Newt

    America witnessed a presidential candidate debating a Chicago alderman.

    And to great lies were exposed tonight:

    1) Obama the great communicator
    2) Obama is highly intelligent

    The man has no command of facts. He stammers and trails off. He has no point to make. And he doesn’t dare proclaim his values.

    The Community (dis)Organizer in Chief was exposed in his full incompetence, with no media crutch to prop him up. He was busted, and the whole nation saw it.

    I am going to bed tonight knowing I will sleep well through Nov. 6 and beyond.

    Love, Newt

    P.S. I feel sorry for the soon-to-be-unemployed Big Bird and Jim Lehr.

  7. Always enjoy the political bantering after the fact. It was a great debate, that’s for sure.

  8. It was boooooring.

    Both of them were entirely lacking in passion.
    It was like watching a couple of robots argue.
    Why can’t we connect voter-feedback electrodes to them?
    Why doesn’t Obama have someone to takes notes for him?
    Why isn’t there a camera so we can see what he’s writing?
    Why can’t Romney get rid of that idiotic half-smile?
    Why isn’t there a timer buzzer – a LOUD one?
    Why didn’t someone give the president a triple cappacinno?

    There was only one loser in this debate. ME! I wasted two hours.

    I hope Biden and Ryan can do better. Both of them have tendencies to say stupid crap off the cuff, so my expectations for at least a modicum of entertainment are somewhat higher.

    As for the presidential debates, I think next time I’ll just read the transcripts.

  9. I understand that Obama’s crew was hitting heavy in requesting contributions before the debate. Do you think that was a good idea?

    • I get fundraised by the Obama campaign almost hourly. I got 2 before the debate, one at the start of the debate and 3-4 in the 24 hours after the event, including one that came within minutes. There is apparently no event too small to fundraise on. Given the horrific needs for cash in modern politics, I guess that’s how it is.

      What’s really interesting – to me anyway – is that our very left-of-center household ocassionally gets fundraising requests from the Romney campaign and the GOP.

      – Austin

  10. The only reason people think Romney won was the extremely low expectations people had for him going into the debates. No matter, though. Debates rarely make a difference in elections. Conservatives? Gore and Kerry both clearly won the debates in 2000 and 2004; you saw how well that worked out for them. My thoughts:

  11. william wallace

    BARACK broke every election promise /rather than
    protect the rights of the people he removed the few
    rights they had remaining / even the right of a trial
    removed by a stroke of the pen as the nation slept.

    Another election & BARACK plays the same formula
    more empty promises his empty flagship promise is
    the Healthcare Bill which funding only existing in the
    Twilight Zone the Healthcare Bill as BARACK a total
    fraud / its only aim is winning the female vote which
    BARACK needs if to win another term in office. The
    Healthcare Bill but falsely promises all to the female
    once the fraud clear BARACK then long gone living
    the good life /leaving millions in the direst situations.

    BARACK s the Al Capone of politics but a fraudster
    it’s for the people in coming to their senses having
    him removed from office. How did he ever become…
    president ?? (the power of money) politicians now in
    need of financial backers / becoming president then
    the financial backing goes into hundreds of $millions.

    Why did they back BARACK ?. because BARACK’s a
    accomplished liar / he has no guilt wnen doing wrong
    thus his backers more than content / being so in awe
    at his ability in deceiving the people’s / in return they
    awarded him the “NOBEL PRIZE” ( Barack accepted) .

    Sooner BARACK is removed from office / the better
    if BARACK wins another term / then his backers will
    make their demands / demands that will bring great
    suffering & destruction upon all nations of the world.

  12. In 2009, Gas $1.85, unemployment 7.8 percent, national debt was 10.6 trillion, median income 54,983.

    Today, gas $3.85, unemployment 8.1, national debt 16 trillion,median income 50,964.

    Romney and President Obama need to define their plans to save the United States from this free fall, if they have one. Very weak debate..

  13. When is the next debate? I think the first one will change the atmosphere of the next one. What do you think?

  14. Pingback: אובמה נגד רומני. ה-עימות! « אני נגד. ככה. הבלוג של זיו.


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