Obama won it on a narrow points margin because he turned up.
This town hall debate (in a studio, for crying out loud) was promoted as a rematch. Mitt Romney had a supremely confident win in the first debate, but the story became Obama’s failure to turn up. So, to get a draw in this debate, the “Obama” we were used to just had to fire.
Obama did turn up, but he also showed us some new moves. His strategy was to cover most bases – a bit of passion, a bit of caring, and a bit of anger at Romney.
He cut back on his stories of other people, and drew on the Obama as the story. He described his passion for America, for middle America and for the less fortunate. He outlined (not detailed) his plans. He promoted his record, and explained away his unmet commitments.
Most of all, he attacked Romney. And he wasn’t going to let Romney slip away. He ran over time, tried to take Romney’s physical space, contested a couple of Romney claims, and pushed back at the moderator. At times he seemed testy. But the take-away was that he cared – that he was fully and absolutely there.
Mitt Romney cared as well. But it was for the wrong things, and in the wrong way. He seemed more rule-bound – worried by time allotment and right to speak. He was upset over whether his policies were being correctly described. A self confident winner is not buffeted by the small winds.
I had Romney ahead on many of the early exchanges, but gradually his style started to come across as desperate. He was back to being the contender. The guy who needed to prove he was up to it. He spent too long on answers, going past his allotted time even though he had already given a good short answer.
He kept referring to things he had done in the past, like they proved the future. He was a preacher. He ran big businesses. He ran small businesses. He ran Cabinets with women (binders of them). He knew about immigrants.
Once he described what it would be like when he was a President. This worked. It had worked in the last debate – when his confidence and commanding style helped him appear Presidential.
This time he was appealing, imploring, citing anything that might work to win a vote. That meant his small missteps were exaggerated.
A note about the moderator, as this has yet again proved to be a side issue during these debates. Candy Crowley was fine. She largely kept it running to time, selected good audience questions, and gave the participants a fair mix of statement and rebuttal. Republicans will hate her correction of Romney’s claim about when Obama called the diplomatic deaths an act of terror. That’s fair, as she wasn’t fact-checking other parts of candidates statements. Then again, her political knowledge, even if used only once, is a vital part of the randomness needed to make debates more than simply party political broadcasts.
Who commanded the stage? At first Romney did. His greater physical presence dominated. Obama’s slighter, dapper, frame was fragile and unsure. But as Obama fired up, he began to draw attention to himself. His more contained and less gesticulating style, concentrated our attention. He was going to win by being Obama, not by beating Romney.
Obama spoke too long as well, and his use of evidence wandered, but his passionate cadence told of his intent – his trustworthiness even.
There were failures. Two or three times Obama ignored the question and segued terribly into an unrelated key message. Once he went from a question on gun control to talk about education and skills training. He ignored the thrust of a question about the key misconception people had of him, simply to reiterate how apparently passionate he was about everything and everyone. My interpretation was of desperation to prove himself. But, again, the over-all take-out was that he cared and was a fighter.
Which is exactly how Obama rounded off the debate with his final statement. The words were the usual rearrangement of how much the politician cared to improve the lot of everyone. Yet Obama delivered them with commitment. He believed in himself again. He was asking voters to believe in him, and his story, once more. It seemed to me that as political theatre, that was the winning combination on the night.
In the next 48 hours, the likely ascendancy of an “Obama is back” narrative will mean that wins the debate aftermath as well.