23 minutes into the first Presidential debate I tweeted that Barack Obama was getting creamed by Romney.
By that point I had scored the first three exchanges all to Romney. Romney was on fire – smooth, confident, talkative. In deep sombre contrast, Obama looked like he didn’t want to be there.
There was a growing sense of momentousness for me over that first 23 minutes. It wasn’t just that Obama was performing so badly, but that this meant Romney was in the race. After months of major gaffes that had turned him into an unfit candidate, Romney had effectively made the debates the real start line to the campaign race.
Every moment between then and election day was about Obama desperately slapping himself awake from his self-imposed sleep-walk to victory.
This article walks through the four debates (three Presidential and one Vice-Presidential) of the 2012 US campaign, and ends up drawing six lessons I think should be remembered by political strategists.
The first debate fail should be a salutatory lesson to all political animals about the importance of passion over preparation.
Let’s not fall for the Obama camp spin about that terrible night; that he was tired, or whatever. He was over-prepped, and poorly at that. He was so full of detail that would smash the ‘incompetent’ Romney, that he’d lost the passion. I’ve mooted that underneath everything Obama did not rate Romney. There was arrogance about the Obama camp campaign. Months of attack advertising had built up a belief inside Obama himself that Romney was an idiot candidate. Obama did not believe he should even have to be debate with him. That is why he was not ready for the first debate.
The sign was there in their opening comments. Obama fluffed his with a awkward outreach to his wife over their wedding anniversary. Romney capitalised superbly, making a magnanimous gesture toward Michelle and making a better opening line of his own.
The debating tactics were fascinating. Clearly, Romney’s camp had gone out to confound Obama in the first debate. They guessed that Obama would list a litany of policy missteps and reversals. So Romney adjusted the phrasing of his policy and plans. He slipped out of each clutch. He was ready with retorts and attacks. Moreover, he was confident and passionate. It was the worst time, but the most likely time, for Obama to be armed to the teeth but without wit and passion to use it.
Despite all the cynicism about the dryness of political debates, and the lack of popular appeal, they can have an impact on voters. Romney clearly got a 3% bounce in his poll ratings. Most of the bounce comes from the wash of punditry following the debate as a narrative unfolds about what happened. In this respect I was pleased to observe that the politically-inspired rhetoric had no impact on the telling of the story. Obama lost the first debate very badly, and no amount of spin stopped that narrative emerging. The second and third debates were far closer, and political spin did have a role in these circumstances. Rather than declaring a winner, the spin filled out the narrative about what each candidate did well and poorly.
The jobs of the Vice Presidential candidates in their debates was to continue or stop the Romney momentum. Biden went aggressive on Ryan. He had to, because the Obama camp needed to show it had a heart, and was prepared to fight for it. If Ryan had destroyed Biden, I believe the race would have been 90% over. Ryan held his ground well, and told the story of himself and his plans. He did not disgrace himself. But Biden’s age helped greatly. He made Ryan look inexperienced rather than attractively new. Biden, renown for his gaffes, made no mistakes at all. If he wins, Obama probably owes more to Biden for saving his Presidency than anyone will ever admit.
The build-up to the second Presidential debate hinged on Obama. Which is a shame for Romney, but was a testimony to the extent of his initial success.
It was billed as a ‘town hall’ debate – which in these over-polished saccharine times means the candidates answer selected questions from a studio audience.
The context was fascinating. Romney is painted as out-of-touch, but his charm and showmanship is strongest in ‘live’ political situations. Obama is painted as in-touch, but he’s said to be a introvert rather than a Bill Clinton.
Romney did very well – far better than the pundits credited because they were so busy watching to see if Obama was back. Romney hit home on the failed economy, contrasting it with Obama’s outlandish election promises. He reused his zingers and phrases – such as calling Obama’s style “trickle down government”. He was quick on his feet, like when he neatly characterised an Obama answer as an admission of being wrong on the Libyan terrorist attack. Romney’s answers also came more smoothly than Obama. For example, his answer to immigration was simple: We welcome legal immigrants. Green cards to skilled people. No amnesty to illegals. In contrast Obama’s answer rambled as he tried to show he cared about immigrants.
Rambling was still an Obama problem in this debate. This time though it was because he was desperate. He was argumentative with Romney. He ignored questions and the moderator to go to his key messages. At one point he answered a question on gun control by talking about education and training. There probably is a link. but he eschewed making it in favour of repeating his education policy.
Yet I gave the debate to Obama by a single point. Not because he had the better of exchanges – they were roughly even, and possibly even favoured Romney. But because Obama had the most resounding theme.
That theme was himself. The tactic was to show that Obama had the most passionate vision. He dropped telling the story of other Americans. He told the story of himself, and used that to illustrate his vision of America. I was totally nonplussed by the rambling story of his grandmother, but the story of himself was stronger.
For example, he constantly referred to events and achievements under his Presidency. And he constantly talked about his vision; of combating the current problems with hope and resilience. His summary statement was superb practiced rhetoric.
The first debate was watched by 10million Americans. The second by seven million. 6.5million watched the third debate.
The third debate did seem like the one no one wanted. Romney had already proven himself a worthy candidate and reset the campaign – drawing neck and neck in the polls. In terms of knowledge, he is weak on foreign policy, and Presidents are almost always strong. And he knew the few Americans (2%) rate foreign affairs as an important election issue.
Obama had found his mojo again, and revitalised his criticisms of Romney, but wanted to use it on local issues, not foreign policy. The risk with this debate was that he might lose on an area of natural strength.
Bizarrely, but wisely, Romney had a once-over position on the foreign affairs topics, and tried at every moment to bring the debate back to local affairs (strong overseas by being strong at home).
This safe position gave the momentum of the debate to Obama, who took considered positions on complex subject, and fired off many prepared salvos at Romney. Obama’s strategists were probably hoping to get a total destruction of Romeny’s credibility, without being mean-spirited, but it didn’t quite come. Obama allowed Romney to drag the discussion into economic matters and joined him there.
The Romney objective was to come through unscathed. His tactics were offering trite solutions (voicing the phrase “kill the bad guys” a couple of time), questioning Obama’s record, and by talking about the economy. He would have achieved his objective because the thinness of his foreign policy isn’t going to lose him votes.
The Obama objective was to appeal to undecided voters, and his former voters who have become disenchanted. Polling hints that these are mainly women.
So Obama’s tactics was to show the wisdom he has exercised in his Presidential capacity and to juxtapose that with the shallowness of Romney’s position. He was attempting to appeal to the more feminine tendency to see issues as multidimensional, and the impact of foreign policy decisions on ordinary people.
That’s why I think Obama’s win in the third debate was much clearer. Romney played it safe, when he still has the most to win and prove. In contrast, Obama knew the subject well, and made more complex points, better. He also used the debate for a specific campaign target – which he would have secured.
The debate series was intriguing for the way the objectives changed throughout – and therefore the tactics changed as well. The only debate which was centrally about who was the better candidate, was the first one. Obama made it such a no-contest that he only had to get a draw in the second debate to morally win. The third debate was not on an subject important to voters (sheesh), and regurgitated the arguments already heard often in this campaign.
The six lessons I draw from the debates for the business of politics are:
- Passion, and the quality of the person, are more important than details
- Strategy for a debate is critical – the wrong choice will lead to the wrong tactics
- Debates matter, as much in the voting effect of the wash-up as in the effect on those watching
- Don’t let the opposition psych the candidate out. Your objective is the voters, and what they think of you (not what they think of you beating the other candidate).
- The debate prep team must be independently minded to give you rigorous training
- No amount of post debate spin can change what is obvious to most people about a candidates performance