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Reflections on the first presidential debate

By Andrew J. Polsky

As the first presidential debate recedes in the rearview mirror, we may be able to gain clearer perspective on what it means to the 2012 presidential race.

For starters, the clear winner was the news media. No one likes a one-sided presidential campaign, and that was the direction of the contest over several weeks prior to the debate. To keep the audience interested, the race has to remain reasonably close. One doesn’t need to see dark conspiracies, then, to suggest that the pundits were keen to find signs of life in Mitt Romney in the first debate. He delivered a smooth and poised performance, delivering his message clearly, and thus gave the media exactly what they most desired — a plausible comeback story to fuel popular interest over the remaining weeks of the campaign. In the wake of the debate, moreover, the opinion polls will likely tighten, too, which will contribute to the narrative of a dramatic comeback possibility. It’s the kind of horse-race story the media can cover well, far better than the issues.

Whether the comeback story is real, though, is another matter. Many observers have commented on the limited impact of presidential debates. Unless the favorable impression registered by the winner is reinforced by subsequent events, the impact tends to be fleeting. Most voters have already made up their minds (this year even more than is usually the case) and no debate performance will unsettle their convictions. They also watch the debate through a set of filters that make them root for the candidates rather than assess the arguments. President Obama’s supporters were disappointed that he missed a number of opportunities to challenge Romney’s assertions and claims, rather like football fans groaning when their team’s quarterback overthrows an open receiver in the end zone. Their team may lose, but they don’t abruptly start rooting for the other team.

In this vein, I decided to ask the students in my large American government class the day following the debate how many of them had changed their minds based on the debate. Out of roughly 170 students, two raised their hands. (I did not ask them how their views had changed.) Although hardly a scientific approach, the result was in line with much other evidence about the effects of a debate.

And my informal survey took place before other events began to reclaim the news cycle. Friday brought news that unemployment had dropped below 8% for the first time since President Obama took office. It’s only one statistic, of course, and the gain masks a number of disappointing trends such as the increase in the ranks of those who have given up looking for a job, but the unemployment rate also is one of the few numbers that everyone understands. The administration will play up the improvement as part of its narrative of a slow but definite economic recovery. Events like this can move the electoral conversation away from a debate performance very quickly.

Past presidential campaigns suggest another reason why the Republican challenger will have a hard time sustaining any momentum from the first debate. Candidates rarely repeat poor debate performances. In 1984 Ronald Reagan put on a dismal display in his first debate with Walter Mondale, briefly reviving the Democrat’s hopes while prompting concerns about his own fitness for a second term. By the second debate, Reagan’s advisors made certain he was ready; besides giving sharper answers, he dealt effectively with the age question by quipping that he did not think Mondale’s relative youth and inexperience should be held against him. The next time around Romney should find himself up against a different Barack Obama, one better prepared to attack the Republican’s lack of experience in foreign policy.

One final note, on the matter of the president’s debate style; a number of commentators described Obama as “too professorial.” That is an insult to professors, at least the good ones. In the classroom, I make an effort to state a clear thesis, present some compelling evidence without overwhelming my listeners by citing every related factoid, and respond to questions directly and succinctly. When professors speak as the president did, students tune out and surf the web. You made us look bad, Mr. President, and we don’t like it.

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.

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