Will the First Obama-Romney Showdown Impact Voters?

Even at their most memorable, presidential debates don't live up to the hype.

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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