Will the First Obama-Romney Showdown Impact Voters?


Mitt Romney and Barack Obama talked in Denver on Wednesday night. The American people listened. What did the electorate discover?

The Republican articulated an opposition to “trickle-down government” and support for the idea that “the private market and individual responsibility always works best.” The Democrat held that the “government has the capacity—federal government has the capacity—to open up opportunities” and that there are “some things that we do better together.”

In other words, candidates repeated the themes they have stressed on the campaign trail. For a voter that hasn’t been paying attention, the debate may have proved instructive. And for the challenger, merely standing on the same platform with the president certainly proved beneficial. But for educated voters—i.e., the ones watching the 90-minute discussion instead of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo—the debate offered little new in the way of substance.

In terms of style, viewers learned much. A sunny Romney smiled and engaged his opponent. A grim-faced Obama rarely even looked at his opponent. He displayed his teeth only with a testy smile, with his happy mouth disagreeing with his angry eyes. The former wanted to be there; the latter seemed bothered by the perfunctory affair.

The clear debate victory on substance but especially on style is good news for Romney. As much as we imagine debates as intellectual forums, the electorate always awards more points for style than for substance.

In the twenty-four presidential debates in American history, what the politicians have said has paled in importance to how they appeared when they said it. The events have proved less cerebral give-and-takes than showcases for candidates to emotionally connect (or not) with voters. Wednesday night conformed to this pattern. The president’s sour mood seeping through his seething smile seemed likely to repulse and not attract voters. The former governor’s warm and engaging personality dispelled notions of him as an out-of-touch millionaire.

Determining who won and who lost presidential debates has always been more about the candidates’ manner than their words. In 1960, a tanned and vibrant John Kennedy cut a contrast to a pale and sickly Richard Nixon sporting a five-o’clock shadow even on black-and-white television. In 1992, George H.W. Bush reinforced a perception of an aloof chief executive by checking his watch. In 2000, Al Gore’s repeated interrupting sighs and invasion of George W. Bush’s personal space conveyed arrogance and awkwardness.

Even when candidates most memorably harmed themselves with their own words, the way they said it rather than what they said hurt most. Gerald Ford’s infamous 1976 gaffe denying Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was compounded by the Manchurian Candidate manner of his remarks. When CNN anchor Bernard Shaw threw high-heat at Michael Dukakis by asking him if he would favor the death penalty if his wife Kitty were raped and murdered, the Massachusetts governor reinforced his reputation as a wooden policy-wonk by answering the emotion-laden question in a stoic manner.

The debates have left us with memorable one-liners and lingering catch phrases: “There you go again,” “fuzzy math,” “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” and, most recently, “trickle-down government.” But they haven’t given voters anything they haven’t already heard during the lengthy campaigns that preceded them.

The candidates debate foreign, economic, and social policy. The only topic beyond debate is the debates themselves. Do they really matter as an intellectual exercise? For the first 42 presidential elections, Americans chose a president without a staged conversation between the aspirants. The connection between winning a debate and presiding over the federal government wasn’t apparent to voters until very recently. Sixteen years after the first presidential debate in 1960, such forums became obligatory for the nominees of the two major parties.

After last night’s drubbing, the president may be wishing debates weren’t required affairs. One senses that the bothered Barack had this feeling even before the action started.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/maritza.diaz.7545 Maritza Diaz

    obama means well, is best for president…..

    • SHmuel HaLevi

      We understand your feelings Maritza. Mr. Obama was totally outclassed by a well rounded, highly trained true US leader.
      You see, to lead the US, the most formidable socioeconomic enterprise ever, one needs to KNOW well, not just mean well. The politics of meaning are empty fluff at those levels. The best one can say about Mr. Obama is that for a mediocre amateur he did the best he could.
      Only very dirty activities against Mr. Romney by utterly devoid of values Chicago elements may harm a bit the Romney landslide in the making..

      • Asher

        Obama was outclassed and outdone by Romney who is a super achiever and businessman with multi-successes…meaning he knows how to balance budjets, create jobs, and allow Freedom to the American people.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "obama means well"

      If there were any reason to give him the benefit of the doubt, I would.

      "is best for president"

      Yes of course, because you say so. What other reason could anyone need?

      • Asher

        23 million people out of work, 47 million on food stamps, 50% of college students can't find jobs, above 8% unemployment, and cutting 716 billion from Medicare, and doubling the deficit, are not accomplishments, they are destructive… Budgets matter, so why hasn't this administration created one in almost 4 years. You better get your facts and figures straight!

        • objectivefactsmatter

          "Not his fault!"

          Racism, past presidents, Republican majority in congress, racism, the environment, fat cat rich people and racism are all conspiring against our radical friend who wants to "transform" the nation.

          Facts? What? Where's your vision, man? How can we transform the nation if you are stuck on the past?

          JK

    • tagalog

      Yes, Obama means well, like the Soviet and the Red Communists as they murdered scores of millions of the people they governed in the name of "social justice."

  • pierce

    Maritza, Obama may mean well, but it is quite evident from last nights debate, he has no idea what he is doing. He talks a good game, and how, but he is clueless when it comes to straightening out the mess he has gotten us further into. 4 more years he does not deserve.

    • PhillipGaley

      Good golly Miss Molly! No, he doesn't "talk a good game"; you've been listening to a dope-smoker clip consonants for several years, now—what in the world could you have been thinking of?

      This presidential debate made the election alternatives quite clear: will the Americans have a real leader for their next president, or will they have a "C" student? I think, though, too bad, they'll go for the "C" student—there just are too few real Americans, to elect a real leader, . . .

      • objectivefactsmatter

        It's becoming even more clear how he won the election in 2008. His constituents are complete idiots.

  • davarino

    Bam, it was like watching a boxing match. Romney annihilated with the truth. How can you fight that? Its clear obama actually believes his own lies, like the one about tax credits for shipping jobs oversees. Nice

    I think Soros is going to want his money back

  • Schlomotion

    Only one thing is certain from this debate: We have a really crappy knockoff Reagan running against a really crappy knockoff Clinton. Everything else is just wishful thinking. We can take away from this debate that American electoral process is diminishing along with the US role in the world. Presidential elections are becoming ceremonial afterthoughts to direct control of the country by companies.

    • Touchstone

      Actually, it was quite a substantive debate. Reagan was more charismatic and appealing than Romney, but he wasn't known for having quite the same mastery of the issues Romney articulated last night. Some debates are full of stale, shallow rhetoric and "really crappy", but not the one last night.

    • Warrior

      Just another fibbing opinion from an antisemitic, lefty, pro jihadist moronski…

    • Ghostwriter

      Schlomotion,you continue to prove to everyone that you're FPM's village idiot. Debates are necessary for how the two candidates handle themselves in the real world. While I didn't watch the debate last night,from what I did see,Governor Romney did a good job. You sound like a Marxist tract from the 1970's.

      • Schlomotion

        You must have read a lot of those. I have not.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "Only one thing is certain from this debate: We have a really crappy knockoff Reagan running against a really crappy knockoff Clinton."

      I don't disagree with your global assessment (in terms of historical presidents as well as foreign policy) but the focus now is on choice, which means between the two. Relatively speaking, the comments are reasonable in my opinion.

      "Presidential elections are becoming ceremonial afterthoughts to direct control of the country by companies"

      I disagree. First, corporations are simply tools used by people. They do tend to aggregate power, but they are still run by people and are held accountable to laws.

      Second, I think that as disappointing as I am that Romney ended up winning the primary race, I actually think that his wealth will help him stay above the fray of undue influence from "donors." He may be the first president in decades who won't succumb to the holler of the (petroleum) dollar. That means he has an extra layer of insulation from Islamic tyranny. That is a good thing.

      There are always many reasons to be skeptical and I can list them as well as anyone, but this election is the first one since Carter Reagan that offers such a stark contrast in choice and fate of the nation.

      As weak as Romney is in many ways, he has the fundamentals required to make the decisions this nation needs, whether or not he leads with impressive charisma. Charisma gets you elected and helps build consensus, but there are other tools. Romney needs to run an effective campaign to win, and most of those tools are portable to the actual process of leading the government if one chooses to use them (in contrast with Obama).

      I'm not thrilled overall when I look back a year or more, but I'm more hopeful than I was a month ago.

  • Bert

    We should remember that the American people are also being tested. Despite the corrupt major media there has been ample evidence for the public to judge Obama early on. Romney can only do so much as a candidate. The rest is the responsibility of the voters to be informed, to know right from wrong, friend from foe, and truth from falsehood. My great concern at this time is the extensive measures that Obama has quietly put into place to brazenly steal the election. Visit http://www.judicialwatch.com for the shocking details.

  • jmm64

    Obama should have taken Michelle to an anniversary dinner instead of debating Romney. The independents will move towards Romney.

    • Andy

      IF they have intelligence.

    • Mike in VA

      LOL – What a way to ruin your anniversary!

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "The independents will move towards Romney.'

      I think this is mostly correct, depending on why they remained independent to this point in time.

  • Andy

    My younger son doesn't take a big interest in politics. He is a tennis player and his assessment of the debate makes for an excellent analogy in tennis. He emailed me the following message:

    If I had never seen Obama or Romney before and watched them for the first time. Romney showed leadership and was fresh. Obama never came to the net. Romney won points from the base line. Yes if this was a Tennis Match, Romney served the ball better, came to the net, had good form, did not even have to slice the ball. He had a game plan and won the Match quite easily. If anyone was at the fence watching this game, they would say Romney won. I guess this is 2 out of three sets?

  • Andy

    Hopefully, when it comes to foreign policy, Mitt will take off his gloves and make clear to America what danger to America is Obama's romance with Islam, his support for the anti-American Muslim Brotherhood, his insistence to fund our enemies and impede our friends, in short, his anti-American, treasonous attitude and behavior.

    • watsa46

      His Islamophilia distracted him from the major problems of America.
      He did not have much interest for the majority which is not black.
      Very sad.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "Hopefully, when it comes to foreign policy, Mitt will take off his gloves and make clear to America what danger to America is Obama's romance with Islam, his support for the anti-American Muslim Brotherhood, his insistence to fund our enemies and impede our friends, in short, his anti-American, treasonous attitude and behavior. "

      This paraphrases what I said too. The thing of beauty is that with the riots of September 11, and the legitimate issues raised about funding such anarchists, now is the time when it will be so easy to attack Obama's foreign policy because our interests as Americans have never been clearer: We are talking about whether to fund terrorists and arguing over school budgets in the same fiscal year when all this happens, not to mention the economy of our own nation?

      Egypt, go to hell until you learn you created this hell on earth for yourself by entertaining Islamic supremacism. We would only be hurting you by propping you up to suffer longer with financial aid. Financial aid to Islamic nations never helps anyone. It only makes the radicals claim that Allah forced the infidel to pay jizya, therefore supposedly offering proof that Islam is the path to the future for them.

  • Winston

    Will the debate make a difference to voters? Perhaps to some, but not to those who have for years been co-dependent with the government taking care of them from "cradle to grave". Substance mean more to astute voters who actually care about this nation, its economy, its unememployment, its domestic growth, national security, curtailing the years of "open borders" to illegal aliens, reducing national debt, and balancing the budget…and having and maintaining a strong national defense.

  • EthanP

    The word today says the debate has already had an effect.

  • Mike in VA

    Looking at how well Romney did with independents, I think the debate will have an impact, especially if people don't bother to watch the next two debates.

    Advantage Romney.

  • watsa46

    With the demo it is in general more politics and less business and with the republicans the reverse. When Pr. O. allude to laziness, he must have had in mind the left!

    • objectivefactsmatter

      " When Pr. O. allude to laziness, he must have had in mind the left! "

      Most people project their values on to others. Obama has no confidence in anything but the propaganda taught to him about "social justice." That is why the need for "transformation." He's anti-American, but denies it simply because he has a delusional view of what America is and what it should be.

  • WilliamJamesWard

    It may be that Obama is sure that he has done enough to destroy what holds America together
    and needs not be here any longer and will be happier in his home town in Indonesia watching
    MSNBC depicting the fall of America. Will all the kings horses and all the kings men be able
    to put America back together again………..hopefully Romney has a real fix and Americans have
    had enough of Socialism, Marxism, Islamism and criminals in general…………….William