Opinion: So What? It Doesn't Matter that Obama Lost the First Debate

Thursday, October 04, 2012 - 08:11 AM

US President Barack Obama debates Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages))

In the first debate Mitt Romney was aggressive, self-assured and made no mistakes. He was suddenly a moderate Romney and not the hard-core Conservative he had become during the primaries.

Obama was slow, disengaged, looked bored, looked down all the time, and stumbled frequently. A CNN poll right after the debate showed that 67 percent felt Romney won the debate aside from the moment in which he promised to kill Big Bird and subsidies to PBS which was seen as an awkward because it showed his non-sentimental, corporate executive.

Romney forgot to mention that RomneyCare was subsidized by millions of dollars of federal money given to Massachusetts AND taxes had to be raised after he left office to pay for RomneyCare. Romney said his healthcare plan would include some of the components of ObamaCare – insurance companies could not deny policies for people with preexisting conditions and young people can stay on their family health insurance policy until age 26. But Romney does not explain exactly what his specifics would be for “preexisting conditions” and it looks as though it would be much more limited than the provisions of the Affordable Healthcare Act.

There are two more presidential debates so Obama has a chance to change his performance. I talked to several of my expert buddies who indicated that Obamas “underperformance” could well be strategic. How so? Do poorly in Debate #1 and lower expectations. Make Romney overconfident. Then strike in debate #2, which is on foreign policy and shine. That would leave the debate formula uncertain and in effect make the debates neutral.

But what if debates don’t matter as some academics demonstrate? John Sides writes in a very interesting Washington Monthly article:

Do Presidential Debates Really Matter? Remember all the famous moments in past debates that changed the outcome of those elections? Well, they didn’t. Political scientist James Stimson finds little evidence of game changers in the presidential campaigns between 1960 and 2000. Stimson writes, “There is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates.”

At best, debates provide a “nudge” in very close elections like 1960,1980, or 2000. A even more comprehensive study, by political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, which includes every publicly available poll from the presidential elections between 1952 and 2008, comes to a similar conclusion: excluding the 1976 election, which saw Carter’s lead drop steadily throughout the fall, “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.” In other words, in the average election year, you can accurately predict where the race will stand after the debates by knowing the state of the race before the debates.”

So why do we put so much emphasis on debates? One reason is that they are political theater. We could say that debates appeal to the reptilian part of the brain. They provide endless fodder for late night show comedians and for all of the news media. A second reason is that debates are a “tradition.” We cannot stop mentioning the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Debates seem necessary as a rite of passage to the White House.

This debate was not the most entertaining, as humorist Andy Borowitz wrote in The New Yorker, “Millions of Americans lost consciousness on Wednesday night between the hours of 9 and 10:30 P.M. E.T., according to widespread anecdotal reports from coast to coast. The sudden epidemic of sleepiness prevented voters from watching more than a minute or two of the first presidential debate between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, which the few observers who remained awake have called the most tedious in American history.”

Debates were created to test the speech-making, rhetorical skills of a politician. Great leaders were expected to give great speeches. This is 2012. Great leaders should be good managers, have knowledge if complex issues from energy policy to economics. Leaders also need to be team players, negotiators, and have integrity. None of these are tested in debates.


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Comments [25]

a newsboy from Vermont

Didn't hear the debate. Newsboys sleep early. AFTER, I hear talk about "Big Bird". How many dollars is that item, a serious candidate should bring up (PBS has been on the Repub. chopping block for a long time). Then, the Chris Stevens diary asking for help in Benghazi. This is serious stuff. Romney is seriously on the case. Where is the President, and, by the way, the Secretary of State? Silence is fine but this gravitas must be backed up with grave involvements. (Not flip discussions of Big Bird all over the country.)

Oct. 11 2012 08:55 PM
Russell Dee from Washington

pootskins from he**,

Romney won the debate because he was unchallenged by Barack Obama, not because Romney truly would be the better president. Obama just isn't a very good debater, however Obama's policies are way better than Romney's policies would be.

A vote for Obama is the patriotic vote whereas anyone who votes for Romney is unpatriotic.

Oct. 06 2012 03:13 AM
Bob Walker from California

The debate "doesn't matter" because Obama lost.

If he won the debate, the race would be over.

Think about that for a minute.

Oct. 04 2012 07:48 PM
Mike from Ithaca NY

There were 4or 5 issues that Romney said he would comment on at a later time. Does anyone remember what they were?

Oct. 04 2012 02:18 PM
Russell Dee

The poor performance makes a big difference. President Obama needs to step up. Romney was on the ropes but Obama let Romney get off the ropes. Independent voters are still trying to make up their minds and last night Romney looked and sounded good even though practically everything he said was a lie. It's all about independents and before the debate independents had major concerns about Mitt Romney but Romney sounded good last night so indpendents probably feel a little better about Mitt Romney. President Obama was staid and listless. He let Mitt Romney move to the center without challenging Mitt for trying to change his positions and he let Mitt Romney convince people of a lot of dishonest stuff.

President Obama needs to change his debate strategy markedly.

Oct. 04 2012 01:39 PM
Paul J. Bosco from Manhattan

Did Obama throw the debate? It's hard to believe, but maybe he now realizes that while he was ready to WIN the Presidency in 2008, he was not seasoned enough to perform well in office.

By losing in 2012, he can run again in 2016. ESPECIALLY if he wins the popular vote and loses in the Electoral College. Or, better still, in the Supreme Court.

Barack Hussein Grover Cleveland Obama. Has a certain ring, doesn't it?

I think he will win re-election, but by not tying Romney to George Bush, Dick Cheney, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnel and that poster-boy Todd Akin, he hurts the Democrats further down the ticket. The big losers last night may have been Harry Reid & Nancy Pelosi.

He is better than any available Republican, in my opinion, but last night he found a new way to disappoint.

Oct. 04 2012 12:47 PM
Emily from Brooklyn, NY

I didn't watch the debate--I listened on the radio, so I didn't know what Obama looked like. Obama did "sound" less strong in the beginning, but then all I could focus on was Romney's lies, so I thought Obama won!

Oct. 04 2012 11:29 AM
Kay Manna

Mitt Romney was aggressive and disrespectful to Jim Lehrer. He was a bully last night and seemed erratic. How is someone used to bully people around going to work in a divided government? Additionally, when he speaks he grits his teeth, gets completely red in the face and wildly shakes his hands. To me, this represents an erratic, bully unable to listen or connect. I was impressed with Obama's composure; his calm approach and his way of describing the details of his plans.

Oct. 04 2012 11:26 AM
j mats from NY

At first I was a bit taken aback by the President's flatness, but then it started to feel more like a tired parent letting his over anxious child continue with a sugar high. It was painfully obvious Romney had a litany of well rehearsed lines to respond to any comment, I'm glad Obama didn't give him a chance to explain any of his recent gaffes, instead to let them live on.

Anything Romney said can be easily challenged afterwards.

Oct. 04 2012 11:06 AM
Ralph from staten Island

Last nights debate was another example of the victory of style over substance and the American public ate it up. Romney appeared very strong, aggressive and "took charge". Which was what many Americans want in a leader. But all he did was repeat his talking points over and over again. This was classical Carl Rove strategy. Hit the enemy at his strength with any crazy declaration so that the enemy will waste time defending something that is already established. Remember John Kerry having to defend his war record against a guy who technically deserted his post.
If I was watching a football game I'd have to say that Romney won. But since this was for the leader of the "free world", I'd say that the American public is so dumded down that I know that they will go for the "rah rah" stuff instead of using their own analytic powers.

Oct. 04 2012 11:00 AM
pootskins from he**

Anyone supporting 0-bama at this point is Anti-American at heart, PERIOD. Review his record of just the past two months. Nothing else to say about it.

Oct. 04 2012 10:45 AM
Paula from New York

Yes, because you choose your president based on a SINGLE debate? - Yes. After all Mr. Romney has said and done! Congratulations...maybe those who have such short memory really deserve Mr. Romney as the president of this country. President Obama was gracious and does not get into Mr. Romney attacking mode, empty promises.

Oct. 04 2012 10:45 AM
Tanya from New York

I think that strategically it was a good idea for president Obama to stay away from some of the zingers he could have landed on Romney. I think not bringing it up denied Romney a chance to spin those commentsin a favorable light in front of a very attentive audience. I was disappointed with POTUS's lack of energy. But I was most disappointed with Romney's lies and lack specifics on his plan for merica. We get that he does not agree with the president's plans, but we have no clue what his plans look like.

Oct. 04 2012 10:45 AM
Alan from NY

What needs to be said:
When we took office, a raging fire was already burning down our barns, our schools, our futures.
We started to put the fire out- water hoses and bucket brigades.
Not only did the Republicans in Congress refuse to pick up a bucket- they punched holes in the buckets- stood in front of the people trying to put OUT the fire.
Now the fire is out- and as we're rebuilding the barn- the Republicans want to take away the hammer, nails,lumber- education- the knowhow we need to make these structures strong and lasting.

Oct. 04 2012 10:42 AM
Jay from New York

It is easy to debate when you lie, do not stand up for your previously stated positions, and say whatever you think the electorate wants to say. The 47% comment recorded "off the record" reflects Romney's true positions and thoughts. Romeny proved that he is an overly aggressive control freak who wants to shift our country toward more crony capitalism. His strange half smile is probably the same expression he wore when he forced his classmate to the floor and cut his hair in high school.

Oct. 04 2012 10:36 AM
PJ from NJ from New Jersey

Alex Miller, get over yourself! This is an opinion article, not a news article. An opinion article reflects the viewpoint of the writer. While an opinion article should be rooted in facts, by design, it is meant to show bias to one point of view. Calling the Professor's teaching methods into question because he has stated his opinion displays your idiocy! I hope your child finds himself/herself in the Professor's class so he/she can learn from someone who has a working brain.

From a concerned human being.

Oct. 04 2012 10:34 AM

Is it possible that President Obama performed poorly in the debate on purpose? Maybe he wanted to lower expectations, then come back and kick some Romney butt in the next debate? Maybe I'm delusional??

Oct. 04 2012 10:30 AM

It’s disappointing that WNYC is even acknowledging this as a "debate."

Oct. 04 2012 10:17 AM
Alex Miller from BearPath Eden Prairie MN

Dear Mr. Schmidt

For some reason I can't shake the feeling you want one person to win over the other. I hope that while in your position as professor (in the classroom) you are keeping a neutral ground. Because if not, I'm extremely disappointed in not only you but ISU as well. And feel extremely sorry for not only my child, but all the kids in your class that want non-biased knowledge so they can make up their own decisions.

From a Concerned Parent

Oct. 04 2012 10:14 AM

Loser in the debate: Jim Lehrer. He reminded me of the teacher that the class likes, but knows that they can interrupt and talk over... and Romney was the smart-a** kid in the class that did just that... seemed that he bullied Lehrer. Obama was the nice kid who makes A's and raises his hand to speak.

Oct. 04 2012 10:08 AM
An Observer from Manhattan

How Obama Won:

1. Made debate so boring most people probably tuned out.
2. Created no YouTube moments or cute exchanges that would be endlessly repeated.
3. Delivered on promise he'd be a mediocre debater.
4. Proved Romney a liar about his own debating skills (among other things); he "crushed" Obama.
5. Created valuable clips contradicting "liberal media bias." Thanks Chris Matthews.
6. Made Jim Lehrer's ineffectual moderating a big story.
7. Looked like he should have been somewhere else doing real President Work.
8. Composure...
9. ...especially contrasted with Romney who had too many of whatever stimulant Mormons are allowed.
10. Did not set up Romney for 47% comeback he no doubt had prepared.
11. Let everyone focus on the horse race, national polling, scoring the debate, lowering the bar for the next one while he works the electoral college where he has a strong lead.

Oct. 04 2012 09:50 AM
PJ from NJ from New Jersey

Honestly, I think President Obama was in shock! He was expecting to debate his conservative challenger but some other guy showed up.
Romney's tactics were evident right from the start; deny points of fact from his own stated policies, lie about whatever necessary, call the President a liar, and act like a bully. This worked to a point because it discouraged the President from engaging and made Romney look like he had moderate ideas. BUT, Romney now has to answer for what he said in those debates. The media needs to come out and call him on what he said last night and stop talking about what Mr. Schmidt calls the 'reptilian' aspects of the debate.
People and pundits can all say that Mitt Romney won the debate last night. So what! He's the same Romney from before the debate. He has the same policies. He's the same candidate who made the 47% comment. I would like to believe that Americans are smart enough to understand that who they saw last night was simply another Romney doppleganger, saying whatever necessary to get te support of those listening.

Oct. 04 2012 09:21 AM
randal walker

Romney clearly demonstrated that he has the compassity to be the president of the united states last night. Obama appeared bored, impersonal, incompetent, off balance, off topic, and factually challenged. If this is how the Obama / Romney debate went, it will be entertaining to watch Ryan tear Biden apart. I believe that rather than writing an article that says that because your guy lost, debates don't really matter anyway, perhaps we should identify this as a potential turning point. I believe that this debate exposed these two people for who they truly are without the distortion, hyper analysis and editing of the media... and Obama fell short.

Oct. 04 2012 09:20 AM
Dave J. from NC

Romney clearly won the debate. He could also go on to dominate the next two debates and VP Biden could show up pantsless for the debate vs. Ryan next week (which is a possibility!) and none of it would matter. To beat Obama, Romney needs to win Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Colorado. There's no possible way that's going to happen. I'm not saying I agree with it, but I'm a realist. Obama is going to win.

Oct. 04 2012 09:19 AM
RUCB_Alum from Central New Jersey

The early 'returns' on last night's debate must per force focus more on style and carriage rather than substance. I am not worried that the challenger appears to have won. Obama was in good command of the facts and appeared Presidential, polite but firm. He will no doubt be a bit more aggressive in Debates 2 and 3. Mr. Romney was more aggressive sometimes bordering on manic. He appeared passionate but combative.

Romney also displayed the willingness to say whatever he thinks his audience wants to hear quality which makes so much of his candidacy hard to take seriously. "I will never sign a tax cut that raises the deficit...". Right.

Oct. 04 2012 08:50 AM

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