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

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US President Barack Obama debates Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

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.