Political debates are not so much about winning, but about personal bests. The PB in campaign debates is to attract the voters you’re aiming at.
So the third Presidential debate was a platform for late campaign objectives, and Obama gained more.
Romney’s strategy in this debate seemed to be to cement the voters he had already won. Obama, who was morally behind, and around even in the polls, needed to reach out to his disaffected previous voters, and any other undecideds.
The Obama camp appeared to have sought to woo voters who wanted considered foreign policy, and who were female. His criticisms of Romney were designed to prevent Romney from appearing like a reliable commander-in-chief. The wording of his foreign policy aims were designed to appeal to humanitarian interests rather than power plays.
The Romney camp appeared to have intended Romney to appear the equal of Obama on foreign policy, and to drag the debate back to Obama’s weakness – the economy. Romney had virtually no policy detail so he emphasised his policy principles – and these were couched more in the language of people already voting Republican. Romney was allowed by the moderator to drag the economy into the debate, and succeeded in repeating lines already well-worn on the campaign trail.
So Obama had the most fortune in addressing the voters he still needs to secure: the undecided female, or moderate, voter.
At times, Obama was still fighting the first debate. The time for undermining Romney’s reliability on policy positions was back then. Revisiting that ground came across as testy and annoyed – fine two debates ago, but off point now.
That played into Romney’s hands. He clearly wanted a draw on foreign policy, so he didn’t much disagree with Obama. He had his retort ready for when Obama criticised him for “being wrong” on every foreign issue over which he voiced an opinion: “attacking me is not an agenda”.
The trouble was, Romney did not have policy differences to explain instead. So a pile of Obama “zingers” struck home. For example, Romney appeared silly to be counting the numbers of ships when technology has changed away from “horses and bayonets” (not as much as Obama inferred, but it’s the impression that counts).
Obama was presenting foreign issues as complex and dangerous – so requiring forethought and carefulness. Romney’s repeated reference to “killing the bad guys” was an awkward simplification that walked into the juxtaposition Obama was setting up.
Strangely, Romney did not get stuck into Obama over a range of weaknesses: Guantanamo Bay, Libya… probably because he couldn’t trust himself to do well. Obama is supremely briefed on these topics.
Instead, Romney deliberately tried to steer the debate back to the economy. It’s the number one issue for the public. Only 2% of Americans consider foreign policy an important campaign issue.
It was disappointing that the moderator, Bob Schieffer, let both candidates drift so far off topic. To his credit, it was because he let the two men actually debate – which allowed at least a couple of exchanges to develop into feisty retorts.
An interesting tactical aspect of Romney’s debate was that his answers would anticipate each new moderator’s question. So for example, he shifted off Syria and spoke about his foreign policy ‘principles’ just before the question about principles was asked. This happened multiple times. It meant he shortened the amount he had to speak about topics on which he had little to say. It led to repetition – but in politics that is no great disadvantage.
Repetition is not a problem Obama’s has, but lengthy answers are his weakness. His rhetorical style is stilted, with sentences of varying length, and pauses in many places. When operating off script, this style is troublesome. It means the ideas don’t flow logically, or built up to king hits. Compared with Romney’s natural ease and smooth flow, Obama sounds lost and disjointed. As Obama was performing on the night to appear considered and thoughtful about complex issues, it was less of a negative than in the other debates.
I liked the way Obama found places, in a debate about foreign affairs, to mention ordinary Americans. He made two mentions about specific individuals for whom foreign policy decisions had an impact.
Romney wasn’t going to visit any new territory. He wanted to cement the his gains from his first superb debate. The problem with that approach is that it hands the advantage to the guy with more to lose. In the first debate, that was Romney. In this debate, it was Obama.
I gave the debate win to Obama because he had more detail, and used it to make better points. His theme, of a careful approach to complex matters, contrasted with Romney’s attempt to simplify matters. Obama won the political platform by appealing to the voters he needed, while Romney only appealed to the voters he already had.