Tuesday, October 9, 2012 - Volume 3, Number 10

© Copyright 2012, The Ultrapolis Project.  All Rights Reserved.

First Presidential Debate & Obama’s Internal One

Two Bad UWFR Predictions in a Row?  Or, Is Reigning Opinion Wrong on the Debate’s Outcome?


Last week we said that Gov. Romney edged out President Obama only slightly, and the effect would not do more than move “an insignificantly small number of wavering votes for Gov. Romney”  (UWFR October 4, 2012).  Perhaps our review focused too much on the words, and not enough on the visible gestures and mannerisms effected by both men during the debates.  Moderately conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, no Obama supporter, said that after reviewing the transcript, on paper “Obama looks a little better,” except for his closing arguments.


Yet, shortly after the UFWR brief was released, our good friend Joaq Arguelles replied quickly to tell us this:


I respectfully disagree on 2 points.

1) Although I (of course) want him to win, I am trying to be as objective as I can in stating this opinion: I think the win was overwhelming for Gov. Romney; I believe he won both in style and in substance and by leaps and bounds.

2) I've already heard of a few voters (family members and friends of family members) who were swayed by the debate. I would think that it did sway some Democrats (but not die hard liberals).  AND based on last night and on this morning it appears that (of all TV stations) MSNBC has turned on the president. I would be willing to bet that this is temporary.

So is our friend right, and we totally under-assessed the gap in the debate performance between the two presidential candidates?  (We do agree with him that the media stance will be temporary.)  Is it possible that even though debate performances don’t have a track record of mattering all that much, this one did?  Maybe.  After all, polls have shifted significantly, most by several percentage points, which would suggest Arguelles has the stronger case.  But, what could have made the perception and effect of this debate so different from what we have seen before?  As we stated previously, even debates with memorable lines, gaffes, and defining moments have not swayed elections.  Nonetheless, in this case, the single-minded perception of the public as to who won was unprecedented.  According to a Pew poll, 66% of those surveyed said Gov. Romney won the debate, and only 20% said the president did.  That is a historic, and incredibly one-sided, number.  And yet, we simply cannot say here at UWFR that the gap between the two was anything like what was true between the candidates in the debates of Reagan vs. Carter in 1980, Mondale vs. Reagan in 1984, or even Kerry vs. Bush in 2004 (or in the VP debates, Bentsen vs. Quayle in 1992, Biden vs. Palin 2008).  No way.


No doubt, expectations played a part in public perceptions.  When Gov. Sarah Palin did not completely blow it against Senator Joe Biden in 2008, the assessment was that she did respectably.  But, that was only because she her previous interviews had been total disasters, on a scale never seen before by any candidate for national office.  Her televised interview with Katie Couric on CBS was the worst public appearance by any candidate we have ever seen.  Had those interviews not preceded the debates, the bar for her would not have been set so low, and her debate performance would have been rated as poor, not ‘respectable.’  In 2012, many expected Obama to easily defeat Romney.


Still, something must account for public perception being far more one-sided this time around than when compared to previous debates where the performance gap was notoriously (at least at the time) wider, especially when in those earlier debates the winners delivered words that have lasted decades and where the losers actually stumbled and fumbled. (Obama may have appeared somewhat disengaged and failed to challenge to Romney on key points, but he did not get confused or appear flustered, make a major miss-statement, utter a gaffe, nor was he the recipient of a devastating characterization.)  We think it is the echo chamber of social media.  Initial reviews of the debates were not as critical of Obama as those that followed.  Twittering now provides instant reactions, followed closely by Facebook, and these get reported instantly. Within minutes of the debate, half the country already knew that most folks were assessing Romney as the winner.  Maybe we have arrived at a point where the first opinion is now the only opinion – and super opinion at that.  Sort of like how only Facebook or Twitter postings that get instant traction get any at all.


Adding to that, TV shows describing dramatic victories get more ratings than those reporting nuanced assessments, and today’s journalistic environments is extremely competitive, and far more influenced by ratings than it was in the mid to late 20th century.   


There may be one more thing at play:  Obama’s support has been shallow, and could be unusually susceptible to dissipation at the slightest sign of vulnerability.


So, do we now think this will impact the election?  It has changed the campaign, giving the Romney campaign and it supporters a psychological boost while demoralizing Obama supporters (in our opinion, creating their own self-fulfilling prophecy).  Were folks really that surprised that a more moderate Romney surfaced now that Romney no longer has to fight the far right within the Republican Party?  It was an open question whether Romney would actually decide to risk Tea Party anger to aim for the independents; but it was always certainly a known possibility that he would take the traditional run to the right during the primaries and to the center in the general campaign.  Well, Romney has made his gamble, and with Obama’s apparent defeat in the first debate, it looks to pay off.  Now, everything is in play; and now, the next debates will make a difference (or rather, the endlessly echoed perception of those debates).  If Obama gains a noticeable advantage in the next debate, repeated opinions may turn it into an overwhelming victory. 


Will Obama regain his footing, his original sense of his cause, as sitting presidents often do?  Or will he stay in the strange emotional separation we described in our closing review of the Democratic National Convention?  No one man can say for certain what another single man will do at one given moment when a man is wrestling with himself.  But, it is now all up to him.  Romney is unlikely to do better in the next debates than he already has.  The only variable left is Obama’s fight with himself.  Whichever side of Obama shows up on October 16, in Hempstead, New York, it is the outcome of Obama’s internal contest, more than the one we will see onscreen, that will decide everything.



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