The Debate That Mattered

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

A large group of media await U.S. President Barack Obama before his election night rally in Chicago, Nov. 6, 2012.

The 2012 campaign can be properly divided into B.D. and A.D.: Before Denver and After Denver. On 1 B.D.—you may know it as Oct. 2—Barack Obama was cruising in the battleground polls. A successful convention had lifted him all September. Reports suggested that Republican donors were considering shunting cash from Mitt Romney’s lost cause to congressional races.

The A.D. era began, fittingly, with a resurrection. What happened at the first debate, on Oct. 3? The standard reading now is that Romney cleaned Obama’s clock. He was poised and passionate, whereas Obama was sleepy and detached. Romney reintroduced himself as a pragmatic centrist and, for 90 minutes, made himself seem a stronger fighter than the incumbent.

(PHOTOS: Election 2012: Photos from the Finish Line)

And that’s true—to an extent. But what was far more important was how the media, professional and social, talked about the debate in the days afterward. Denver took a race that looked as if it were already over and made it a contest. In an election that was supposed to be won by billions of dollars’ worth of ads, it proved there is still no power like the free medium of two people talking on a stage, steered and amplified by the populist megaphone of the Internet.

How one-sided was Denver, really? No sane person would do this for fun, but shortly before the election, I went back and rewatched. From the beginning, Romney is revved up. In the first couple of minutes, he cracks a disarming joke, shares anecdotes from beleaguered voters (swing state, check; women, check), ticks off a five-point plan and, oh, by the way, casually renounces the tax cuts for the wealthy he spent a year campaigning on.

Obama, meanwhile, filibusters the debate, talking more but saying less. He mainly addresses moderator Jim Lehrer, not Romney. He looks down, a lot, which means that when Romney peppers him with golly-gee disappointment, he seems abashed. We see his eyelids as much as his eyes. But—contrary to the popular postdebate consensus—he does rebut Romney’s arguments and call out his opponent’s about-faces: “Now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying his big bold idea is ‘Never mind.’”

Bottom line, Romney won, and the postdebate snap polls confirmed that. But was it the unprecedented shellacking now ensconced in political memory? Not really. The shellacking came after—and came hardest from Obama’s supporters. On MSNBC, Chris Matthews tore into him like a football coach after five interceptions: “Where was Obama tonight?” Andrew Sullivan, who had hailed Obama as the Democrats’ Reagan in Newsweek, rent his garment: “He choked. He lost. He may have even lost the election.” Obama may have been handicapped by his reality-based base; Romney lost the third debate handily, yet conservatives held message discipline, calling it at worst a draw.

The shift against Obama began before the first debate was even over, on social media: Twitter registered 10.3 million tweets during the first debate, the most for any event this election. Today the spin room is immediate, and it is us. It doesn’t just amplify reactions; it intensifies them, because the strongest judgments—#WIN, #FAIL—get liked and retweeted.

Whether it’s the Lost finale, an approaching winter storm or a debate, the Internet likes to judge things the best ever or worst ever. That judgment was not kind to Obama in Denver, and political reporters, who live half their lives on Twitter nowadays, were reading and rendering it before the candidates left the podiums.

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After a long, static grind of a campaign, the press was dying for a new story; in early September, political reporters were publicly bemoaning the “joyless” and “less fun” 2012 race. The A.D. era offered excitement. Suddenly the Romney-campaign moves that were desperate yesterday were confident today. Yesterday’s idiots were today’s geniuses. And each new campaign story would carry the tag “… after the President’s drubbing in Denver.” The polls moved a little in the first day or two, but they’d moved a lot a week and a half later.

None of this is an excuse for Obama—exactly the opposite. The President’s job is to communicate in the media world that exists, not the one he wishes he had. Romney—who crammed for weeks while Obama reportedly skipped practices—behaved as if he knew that a good 90 minutes in front of 67.2 million viewers could erase a summer of floundering. One strong night, a swell of social-media buzz and a media hungry for a new narrative could slingshot his campaign like a deep-space probe accelerating off the gravitational field of Jupiter.

The lesson of Denver is: the moment matters. If you wait until the next day to answer your opponent—Obama introduced a slew of comeback zingers on the campaign trail—you may as well wait until December. In the second debate, when moderator Candy Crowley corrected Romney on live TV over a claim that Obama had not called the Benghazi consulate assault an “act of terror,” it defanged a potentially devastating line of attack.

In the B.D. era, pundits and political scientists wondered whether debates really carried much weight anymore and whether TV in a fragmented media age was as relevant as it used to be. In the A.D. era, it turns out that TV debates are like all TV programs nowadays: they matter less, except when they matter more. In prime time, average audiences have gotten smaller—except for a few live-TV spectacles a year, like the Super Bowl and awards shows, whose audiences have grown bigger than ever, abetted by the instant watercooler of Twitter and Facebook.

So too with the campaign. Over a billion dollars’ worth of TV ads barely budged the polls, but a handful of TV events did: the first debate (with 28% more viewers than in 2008), the well-executed Democratic Convention (though not Clint Eastwood and his chair at the GOP confab), Romney’s leaked video disparaging “the 47%” on government assistance, and perhaps Hurricane Sandy, which not only gave Obama a bipartisan platform with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie but also provided a powerful, physical example of the President’s argument for the role of government: You didn’t rebuild that alone.

True, it’s impossible to isolate each of these big media events from the larger trends around them. Did they change the course or accelerate a change that was already going to happen? Did the debates move voters to Romney, or was that preordained by the already tightening polls? Did Sandy give Obama a tailwind, or were the polls going to revert to him anyway? Obama won by a comfortable electoral margin, if not the blowout he once seemed headed for. But the evidence is strong in A.D.-era politics that there are a few TV moments in each campaign that are still the equivalent of the Super Bowl. When they come along, you had better show up to play.

MORE: The Day After the Election

13 comments
jones.thais
jones.thais

'After the first debate I thought enough is enough with the media and pushed out of my awareness as much as possible all they were predicting,  analyzing, polling etc.  and felt a whole lot more relaxed.   

Jim_Roos_in_SC
Jim_Roos_in_SC

I think President Obama purposely threw the first debate in order to give hope to Romney's backers, thus keeping their money in the presidential campaign.  Obama had an insurmountable lead, but if all that dirty Republican money had shifted to congressional races the Dems would have lost the Senate ---and that would have made it impossible to govern.

 Why else would President Obama be staring at the floor while Gov. Romney threw the punches?  It was the same rope-a-dope performance perfected by another smart black man, M. Ali.  The rope-a-dope also served to wake up some Dem voters that had been sitting on the sideline yawning.

Our President is a crafty guy.  Watch how he outwits John Bohner in the fiscal cliff drama.  Mitch McConnell is relegated to pouting on the sidelines, trying to come to terms as the leader of the Senate MINORITY.  Mitch ain't comfortable around minorities.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

I was telling anyone who would listen that you don't win debates, you lose them.  Obama LOST the first debate.  The other two debates, Obama "won" them - he got a point out of each by optimistic estimates which makes it near impossible to distinguish from noise or natural corrections.  I'd say he got a big tailwind out of Sandy but perhaps equally as important, if he hadn't shown up for Sandy, it would have been as bad as his not showing up for Denver.

Moments you win are worth insanely small amounts.  Moments you lose are worth insane amounts.  Nobody in Obama's camp paid attention to that vitally important fact and paid for it in Denver.  And really, it was a fact that Carter could've told them.

UMMLocal12
UMMLocal12

When you point out that the conservative media stayed on message, you implicitly and correctly accuse them of being a part of the Republican campaign.  The Democrats do not have anything like.

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

Lets start by not calling these media guided live mutual inteviews "debates".  "and, oh, by the way, casually renounces the tax cuts for the wealthy he spent a year campaigning on."  and this is just a small part of it.  The Romney that showed up was yet another revision of the incredible morphing candidate.  Rather then report the constant contradictions of the Romney ponzy scheme the press played the false equivalance game and tried to sell the country on the idea that the "race" was close.  In fact the race was never close.  The election was won in a landslide the way the polls had always predicted.  Once they finish counting Dade \County, FL votes the finally count will be 332 to 206.  What do you call a blowout?

MrObvious
MrObvious

Sure, the first debate did matter. But if our media didn't try hard to make it into a horse race (by often highlighting outliers in polling rather then the aggregate), they sure had the narrative down after the first debate.

The truth is that realistically it was narrowing even before the first debate and I think the contraction quickened after it - but ultimately it boils down to vision and it was always hard to nail down what specifically Romney stood for.

outsider
outsider

I think the point about media hype is salient - but I wanted to see more out of BO in the first debate.

poniewozik
poniewozik

I realize "blowout" is a subjective term, so we could debate it endlessly to no effect. In the section of my piece you're referring to, however, I'm noting that Obama won the Electoral College comfortably but did not get the vote margins he was showing on the eve of the debate, when--to take one example--an NPR poll had put him up by 7 points, and his poll-averaged margin was at least 4-5 points, depending which aggregator you checked.

But, as you know, it's the electoral college that decides the election, and Romney never took the lead there. But is it true it was never close? There again, "close" is a subjective term. But if we agree that Nate Silver was one of the best forecasters of the election, note what he wrote on Oct. 12, in his post "Romney Debate Gains Show Staying Power": "Although we prefer to describe the race in quantitative rather than qualitative terms, the nomenclature that we use in our Senate forecasts is to describe a race as a 'tossup' if each candidate has at least a 40percent chance of winning. Mr. Romney is on the verge of that threshold." http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/12/oct-12-romney-debate-gains-show-staying-power/

Is that "close"? Dunno, but I voted for Obama and to me it was too close for comfort. That said--as I have been writing a lot in my posts about Silver's detractors--I agree that a whole lot of pundits were describing the race, especially at the end, as much closer than an objective look at data suggested.Thanks for reading!

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

@MrObvious "it was always hard to nail down what specifically Romney stood for"  you are being way too nice.

WickedGames
WickedGames

@poniewozik well, if you take all the irrelevant states aside and count the swing states (or the states that were actually campaigned for) Obama won 8 out of 9. In effect a landslide.

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

@poniewozik  Wow, James....very nice of you to reply!  As you can imagine I was frustrated by the way the race was portrayed in the media.  Romney seemed to be given a pass on so much and even with that benefit his path to victory was at best an unlikely one.  We both voted for the best candidate but I opened my celebration bottle at 8pm est.  Thanks again!

outsider
outsider

@poniewozik 

Thanks for replying James; we appreciate it when the authors get involved; and correct us, or debate back when we comment. 

doddeb
doddeb

Thanks so much for responding, James.  Here's the problem I have with the media.  Even with the post-first-debate bounce, Romney was never really going to take the electoral college.  From the 538 you quoted above:

"But the FiveThirtyEight forecast of Mr. Romney’s chances — 38.9 percent — isnearly identical to the one at the betting market Intrade, which put them at 38.5percent as of early Friday evening. Other prediction markets and bookmakersgive Mr. Romney slightly lower chances, in the range of 30 or 35 percent."

So even with the "big bounce", which didn't last too long, the probability was slim for a Romney victory.  Like it or not, the electoral college results are how we choose a president. Yet most in the media were not bringing that up at all, it was all the Romney surge in the polls.  If Republicans are shocked at what happened, it is because no one consistently tried to burst the bubble and state the truth.  The horse race which they love so much was never much in doubt.  I don't believe this does the citizens a service, in a democracy.