Post-debate comments and reactions #1

Here’s my off-the-cuff responses to last night’s debate, in no particular order:

  • If we define “winning” the debate in terms of who looked more confident and on the offensive, Governor Romney unquestionably “won” last night’s debate. There is widespread consensus that President Obama appeared impatient, annoyed, and defensive most of the evening. (I suppose I would be, too, if this was how I was spending my 20th wedding anniversary! Joke.)
  • If we define “winning” the debate in terms of who, on balance, presented a more accurate picture of reality in terms of facts, figures, and numbers, independent fact-checkers are giving the win this morning to President Obama, see here, here, here, and here.
  • If we define “winning” the debate in terms of who the public thinks won the debate, the win goes to Governor Romney.
  • It’s hard to make the case that Governor Romney’s win last night will translate into winning the election in four weeks. Remember political history: challengers have done well in debates and lost elections (the most recent example being John Kerry, who was widely perceived by the public as winning all three matches against President Bush, and then lost by 2.5%). That being said, Romney’s team will certainly enjoy some positive headlines this week after a couple of really bad weeks focusing on Libya and the 47%. 
  • I tend to agree with NYT columnist David Brooks when he says that President Obama is a politician who, deep down, doesn’t really like politics. It’s just not his natural environment. He’d rather be engaged in higher-level discourse than is afforded by the modern debate format. Nonetheless, if you want to be president, you have to play by the rules of the game, and being able to contest in these debates is one of the rules. Romney did a much better job of “playing by the rules” last night.
  • The last question in the debate focused on who would best be able to end the massive polarization in Washington. Both candidates said that they would best be able to do that. They’re both wrong. Presidents don’t cause polarization and they can’t really fix it, either. The public polarizes itself.
  • No, CNN, a sampling of opinions of a group of 40 undecided Colorado voters is not a “scientific poll.”
  • Lehrer is getting a lot of heat for not reigning in the candidates and providing more structure. Actually, I think this format was better. A common complaint against the modern debate format is that it’s too moderator-focused and the candidates aren’t free to directly engage each other. I liked that the candidates were encouraged by Lehrer and given more leeway to directly engage each others’ arguments.
  • Romney really played up all his moderate-ness in his various responses. I suppose his strategy was really to appeal to that 5-10% of the electorate that hasn’t made up their minds yet or that is persuadable, and figured that even if the conservative base isn’t happy with many of his moderate answers, they’re still going to vote for him anyways. He needs to balance that with still giving them base a reason to show up to vote, though.
  • Debates are a great political tradition and are very important for our democratic process. They are NOT, however, in my opinion the best place to have substantive policy discussions. The various discussions on the economy, the deficit, and taxes were just not helpful (in my opinion) to really getting an accurate picture of our financial situation. There was too much over-simplification and selective presentation of facts on the part of both candidates. This gives the partisan base on each side further ammunition, but does not help many Americans understand the intricate realities of very complex issues. Nor, I think, do they really care all that much about the messy details. And most Americans don’t read the fact-checking websites. So the candidates can pretty much get away with whatever they want to say!
  • My prediction is that Romney will get maybe a 1% bump in the polls in the next week or so (maybe 2% if he’s lucky – but I doubt it). Given that he’s currently down by 4% nationally, and even more so in swing states, he’ll need to repeat this knock-out performance twice more and count on some outside factors to make this more of a true toss-up election.

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