The Election Debates’ panel has declared Mitt Romney the winner of the First Presidential Debate. The panel was split 5-1 in favour of the Republican challenger.
Both speakers provided a clear contrast in the first of their three debates: Romney punchy, Obama meandering; Romney aggressive, Obama passive; Romney confident, Obama ponderous. In the end it was Romney who prevailed. He took control of a debate that was, at times, messy. He was clearer in his policy proposals and sharper in his attacks. His energy and enthusiasm throughout the debate contrasted with the President’s more lacklustre approach.
Romney got away to a good start, making inroads on cost of living pressures, attacking federal bureaucracy and defending his tax plan as a means of generating economic growth. He attacked where we knew he would attack: on jobs and the deficit. The President struggled initially, talking in very general terms. Surely one of the advantages of incumbency is the chance to record specific achievements. As Ian Lising noted, “There were several opportunities in the round for him to go on the offensive, but he inexplicably resisted. This was his round to lose and his passive case and surprising lack of refutation cost him the round.”
That criticism could also be extended to his attack on Governor Romney. There was no mention of the 47%, of the Bush legacy, of GM or a host of other issues that could have led the President to draw the strongest possible contrast between himself and his challenger. There was also no mention of some of the extremely damaging things said by Romney’s fellow Republicans in the bruising primary debate schedule. Perhaps the President was just too Presidential.
The speakers were a contrast in time management too. Sam Greenland noted in his judgment that “Romney was particularly good at using his time efficiently, delivering brief and punchy responses. On the other hand, Obama’s more relaxed style and slower delivery often meant that he struggled to fit his answers into the time available, which greatly diminished their rhetorical impact.” Indeed, for Obama to successfully (1) defend his own record (2) advance a plan for the next four years and (3) attack his opponent’s policies, he needed to be superbly organised, concise and precise. He was not. Neill Harvey-Smith commented that “Barack Obama explained, explained, explained in long, broken sentences, delivered with a curious lack of energy.” The former law lecturer was reverting to type.
However we do value depth at Election Debates, and the more detailed, academic approach of Obama did help him narrow the gap in this debate. Sam Greenland found that “By the end, Obama’s style and level of detailed explanation sounded measured and thorough, whereas Romney’s deliberate vagueness started to be exposed as a liability as it became clear that his statements did not advance the audience’s understanding of his position.” This was decisive for Fenja Berglund who gave Obama the win: “Barack Obama won this close debate by engaging more effectively with his opponent’s assertions while using facts to defend his own.”
You got the sense going into this debate that Romney needed a strong start. Moderator Jim Lehrer, in a departure from the tightly scripted questioning and overzealous time management of the past, allowed Romney some room to move – and he took it. He elbowed his way into discussions and demanded rights of reply. Early in the debate, when Obama had the first word on an issue, Romney insisted on having the last word. Not long after, while debating regulation, Romney claimed the first and last word. He controlled the debate, but used humour and the occasional smile to disarm. Wayne Jocic summarised the contrast neatly: Mitt Romney was the more presidential candidate. He was less polite and more assertive, but his manner was not so much rude as energetic. (Not all judges agreed with this kind assessment of Romney’s manner). This energy stood stark against Obama’s lethargy.” Jason Jarvis went further on the President’s manner problems: “His eye contact was poor throughout the debate, as he rarely appeared to address either his opponent or the audience/camera, focusing almost exclusively on his notes.”
The debate was messy, and while moderator Jim Lehrer will no doubt come under some scrutiny for his performance, it is worth noting that this debate had more engagement, analysis and detail than any presidential debate in a very long time. The messiness rewarded clarity and assertiveness and the majority of the panel gave the debate to Mitt Romney for these reasons.