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.

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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.

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