Thursday, October 4, 2012

The First Presidential Debate Recap

The consensus is in from the Right, Middle and Left that Mitt Romney was the winner of last night's debate (a CBS Poll of uncommitted voters showed 46% thought Romney won, 22% thought Obama won and 32% thought it was a tie; a CNN Poll of registered voters showed 67% thought Romney won while only 25% thought Obama won).  For the Romney camp, this is precisely the evening that their candidate had been hoping for after facing a series of tough breaks (Obamacare upheld by the SCOTUS, a bad PR trip overseas, a convention that fell flat, a viral video writing off 47% of Americans, etc.) which had, prior to this debate, all but handed the presidency back to Obama.  After months of Obama successfully defining Mitt Romney to the American people as an out of touch millionaire, Mitt Romney finally seized on the opportunity to define himself as a serious candidate.

This is not to say, however, that President Obama performed poorly in the debate.  To the contrary, he clearly had a mastery of the facts, never once committed an obvious error, and actually did well in pointing out a common theme among both Romney and Ryan when it comes to the lack of details in their plan for America.  Indeed, one of the more memorable moments of the evening was when Obama, having pointed out the lack of specificity in all of Romney's answers for the evening, summarized by asking "is the reason Governor Romney is keeping all of these plans to replace [my programs] secret because they're too good?"  So make no mistake about it, President Obama effectively laid out a factual case to the American people about Obamacare, the state of the economy, jobs, and the importance of the role of the federal government.  With Obama doing so well on substance, how, then, was Mitt Romney unanimously declared the victor for the evening?

"How did I beat you?...Do you think that's air you're breathing?
Debate 101.

First and foremost, Mitt had clearly studied up on the issues.  There was never a moment where Mitt was at a loss for words.  He had a memorized response for nearly every topic and was able to deliver them without much interruption from moderator Jim Lehrer (who, by the way, Mitt Romney punked throughout the entire night).  Mitt Romney has been running for President for the past 6 years; any hopes he ever had of winning the White House came down to his performance last night.  Based on his mastery of the issues, it became apparent within the first 10 minutes of the debate that this fact was not lost on Mitt.

Which segues beautifully into the next major factor that worked in Mitt Romney's favor: low expectations.  For the days immediately leading up to the debate, both camps attempted to manage expectations by downplaying their respective candidate's ability to debate.  However, the effectiveness of Obama's 7-month campaign to define Mitt Romney as the out of touch, aloof, rich guy turned out to be a double-edged sword for the Obama campaign.  The more Romney failed to sound like the out of touch rich guy, the more he defied the expectations of the general public.

Body language also played a major roll.  Romney made it a point to always direct his attention towards Obama, even when Obama was speaking, whereas Obama often looked down at his notes with an occasional smirk whenever Rommey was speaking.  Thus, Romney appeared to be the aggressor while Obama played defense (to Obama's credit, he did manage to effectively look directly into the camera on several occasions and connect with the American audience at home).

And lastly, Romney was able to use an age-old debate tactic known far too well by anybody who's ever been in any sort of relationship: get the last word.  Throughout the debate, no matter who the first question was posed to, Romney made sure to get the last word - even if it meant disregarding moderator Jim Lehrer. As attorneys, we are trained to dismantle our opponent's arguments with an effective rebuttal because we know that an argument which is allowed to float out into the universe without being challenged becomes the "last word" by default.

For example, if you argue, as Obama did, that we want to raise the tax rates on millionaires and billionaires to the same rates that we had under Bill Clinton which created 23 million jobs, a booming economy and actually created a surplus in the federal government's budget, and you are allowed to leave that fact out there in the ether unchallenged, then you've probably "won" that issue since everybody likes the sound of more jobs and no federal budget deficits. But if I then come back and argue, as Romney did, that your plan to raise the tax rate on the rich from 35% to 40% as it was under the Clinton years would actually hurt the top 3% of small businesses who, by the way, employ 50% of America, and you fail to challenge me on this, then the casual observer (read: low information voter) would probably say that I "won" that issue since you didn't have a comeback to my small business rebuttal.

And that, in a nutshell, is what Romney more or less did throughout the entire evening, whether the moderator wanted to move on to a new topic or not.  In short, Romney got the "last word" - and it should be noted that Obama rarely challenged Romney's "last word" even if clearly did not ring true (e.g., when Romney claimed that his $5 Trillion tax cut for the rich would not add to the national deficit).  Obama was able to deliver a few effective rebuttals of his own (e.g., debunking the Obamacare "death panel" myth) but not to the extent that Romney did.
Mitt Romney will likely receive a bump in the polls from his Republican base who, prior to this debate, was ready to throw in the towel.  However, it remains to be seen what effect, if any, this will have on independents and undecideds, especially those in the swing states that Romney desperately needs to win over if he's to have any real shot at changing the electoral map which currently favors Obama by a large margin.  Unfortunately for Romney, the next Presidential debate on October 16 is on domestic policy and foreign policy, and the October 22 debate is exclusively on foreign policy which is not only an area where Romney struggles but is also an area where President Obama is remembered by most voters as the President who killed Osama bin Laden.

Give us your thoughts on the debate. Who won? Who lost? Memorable moments?

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