At a deep subconscious level, Barack Obama did not think he should have to debate Mitt Romney. For reasons we, like he, can only guess at, Obama did not want to be there. These were the reasons why he comprehensively lost the debate.
My sense is that he felt he was too good for Romney. So all the rehearsals, prepared zingers, and rote-learned facts were worthless. Obama went into the practice and the real thing believing his opposition was not worthy to be there. Consequently Obama’s first debate against Romney was the worst political performance most people have ever seen from him.
Obama, like most pundits, got the shock of his life. Not just because of his poor performance, but because Romney was outstanding.
Obama’s nightmare started with his very first statement. A scripted personal touch predictably reaching out to his wife to note that it was their wedding anniversary. He seemed awkward and stilted saying it. Yet he has skillfully used the personal so many times.
Romney’s scripted start using examples of real American’s having it tough, was delivered perfectly. Yet, he had the confidence and presence of mind to start by congratulating Obama on the anniversary and apologising that it should be experienced with the debate.
This comfort and presence of mind was Romney’s signature for the rest of the debate. He was in charge of himself, in charge of the hapless aging moderator, Jim Lehrer, and mostly in charge of Obama. He kept his statements punchy, his cadence varied, and his gestures lively. But most of all, Romney was switched on – he was very there in the moment – and the man was straight out appealing (ignoring the politcal positioning).
The physical stance of debaters sends interesting signals. Romney was upright, independent of the lecturn. Obama lent on the lecturn, one leg bent and twisting, and rarely looked at Romney. He stared at the cameras, breaking through the fourth wall to the voters as he has done on his own so many times as President – but it wasn’t the time or place for that.
The next phase worked in Romney’s favour. During the campaign both candidates have appealed to their version of middle America. Romney kept to his script, referencing the economic troubles of middle America.
But he also broke from his campaigning script. It was here, right at the start of the debate, that he denied he would cut tax for the wealthy. The flat out denial, like others that followed, flummoxed Obama.
The irony of rehearsals is that your peers can find it hard to really pretend to be your opposition. (John Kerry played Romney in Obama’s rehearsals, and Rob Portman played Obama for Romney). It looked like Obama’s team never thought Romney would simply deny much of what he had previously advocated. Yet, before the campaign started that’s exactly what Romney did. He never stayed on any one policy for very long. If a position became difficult, he just changed it (see here for a simple example, and see here for his policy details, and see here for the Romney aide who had to reverse a Romney claim during the debate about the healthcare plan).
In the middle of the debate, Romney came out with a doozy: he said that no economist could claim his policy would result in any particular outcome if Romney would promise that it would not.
Without a passionate reason to be there, Obama stuck to his notes, and to the detail. Too much detail. As he worked through his fact sheets his answers lengthened, wavered, wandered, paused, and wandered again.
The Romney we saw on the night didn’t worry about detail. He worried about how he performed: the type of person he projected. He was acting with sincerity, with confidence, with compassion. We believed he knew those people he described on struggle-street. He had a touch of the common when he said he’d raised boys, so knew what it was like to hear the sort of claims Obama peddled.
Obama referenced real people only twice. He referred to a teacher and the poor physical state of their classroom and resources. He didn’t say how he would fix it. It seemed like an example Romney would use.
And he, predictably again, referenced a struggling family member – a grandmother. I think he over-uses these personal accounts, but this one seemed to help him find himself a little bit. Still, the story dragged on, and the debate quickly moved on.
Obama had one more chance to get the debate swinging back his way. Lehrer wrestled control from Romeny and invited Obama to tear apart Romney’s health plan. Obama stared at Lehrer for a long moment and we were all waiting for the zinger – the put down. So was Obama. But it’s wasn’t there. He looked down at his notes. He found a fact, and begn to drone about details. The moment, and the debate was lost.
The role of moderator is tough. If you are too soft, the debate becomes a bun-fight between the candidates so the audience learn nothing. If you are too tough the candidates don’t get to voice their positions, and contest each other – so the audience learn nothing.
Lehrer says his job was not to get in the way, but the reality was that he was too soft. The debate did not get through its alotted subjects due to the candidates talking too much. The advantage was that the candidates battled it out. This worked to Romney’s advantage as he was on his game, and against Obama, who fluffed almost every one of the many long sentences he uttered.
It was the final scene of the debate which will stay with me for a very long time. Romney’s family – his entourage – flooded onto the stage. They mobbed their man and surrounded Barack and Michelle, stifling them with good wishes. The Obama’s fled from the ring where he had been so completely trounced. They left the ring to the Romney’s who waved to the crowd triumphantly.
The lessons I draw from the debate are:
- When rehearsing, use someone who doesn’t mind giving you a hard time.
- The most important preparation is to find your passion – your reason for being there.
- Strategy is very important – the job is to appeal to the audience, not beat your opponent – so you need to accurately judge your angle, and worry less about contesting what you think your opponents angle might be.
See here for my blow by blow call of the debate as it unfolded.
See ABC’s blog for responses of other pundits, and a political fact check.