Winner: Mitt Romney
Scores: Obama 79 | Romney 81
Judge: Sam Greenland
The debate featured a refreshing level of engagement between the two principals, who preferred responding directly to their opponent over spouting rehearsed talking points. It suffered badly, though, from a failure of the moderator to maintain order or to keep to time, which both candidates exploited throughout.
Mitt Romney was the first to settle into the format, looking at ease and confident as he gave his answers. He appeared in full control of his material, often listing multiple responses to a given problem. He made very effective use of body language by turning to address Barack Obama directly when challenging his points, whereas Obama preferred to address his remarks to the moderator. This gave the appearance through much of the debate – particularly on the deficit and social security – of Romney successfully attacking Obama directly, and Obama struggling to defend himself to the moderator and the audience, sounding cautious and defensive.
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. Often he barely found time to cover defensive angles in response, let alone be able to return fire against his opponent. However, Obama had much more detail in his proposals throughout the debate, which gave more credence and weight to his statements.
As the debate progressed, Obama switched into offensive mode, challenging Romney’s lack of specificity and landing some telling blows which changed the momentum of the debate and brought the margin back to a very close one. When challenged on his ties to Paul Ryan’s specific plans, Romney had no real answer except to duck the question. 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.
Overall, however, I judged this to be a narrow win for Mitt Romney, who appeared more poised throughout the debate and whose punches landed more often and earlier than Barack Obama’s late flurry. However, it will be interesting to see whether Romney’s lack of specificity and the occasional departure from previous statements and commitments come back to haunt him in the more extensive media analysis that will follow in the days to come, and potentially in the remaining debate rounds.