In early October, President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney met onstage for this election season’s first presidential debate. The debate was moderated by journalist Jim Lehrer and focused on domestic policy. DrexelNow spoke with Dr. Bill Rosenberg of the College of Arts and Sciences’ History and Politics Department and director of the Drexel University Survey Research Center about the first debate and what it might mean for future debates and the November 6 presidential election.
Media reports and public opinion determined Republican candidate Mitt Romney as the winner of the October 3 debate, which begs the question—what makes a winner in a presidential debate?
The public and the media really want to focus on a horse race—who’s ahead and who’s behind—but the reality is, there are many dimensions to what happened that night. The expectations were low for Romney, high for Obama. Romney did better than he was expected to. Regardless of your political affiliation, most would say that Romney did better than people thought he would, so it’s easy to say that Romney “won” the debate.
The problem is that it’s not that simple. It’s not just the performance a candidate gives—what he says matters too, and ultimately if you were an Obama supporter before the debate, you probably still are today. Nothing happened during the debate to change that, whereas for Romney, it looked like the race was beginning to slip away for him, so the debate probably reinvigorated his supporters. In that sense, it was a “win” for Romney, but I don’t think it changed many minds in terms of the actual votes he’ll get.
A common criticism of Romney is a perceived tendency to backtrack his comments—or, as the media likes to say, to “etch-a-sketch.” Did he do that during this debate?
I think there was a little bit of that happening. He decided to embrace elements of healthcare reform, [comparing it to his own Massachusetts healthcare reform] but he was embracing a program that many of his supporters are opposed to as well as himself over the past few months. He also backpedaled a little bit on his issues in regard to taxation. In all fairness, he said he would reduce tax rates and tax loopholes. The problem is, he doesn’t say which loopholes he’s going to remove. Many people are happy with lower taxes and if you don’t know what loopholes are, you might assume they won’t affect you much.
Obama was criticized for his attitude and appearance during the debate—many people thought he seemed disinterested and unengaged. Do you agree with this criticism?
President Obama was certainly not aggressive. In general, he was not animated. The way a candidate appears during a debate is reflective of his personality and how he wants to appear, but is also influenced by things happening in the background that we don’t know about. For instance, Syria attacked Turkey the day of last week’s debate, so President Obama may have been considering military action while waiting to take the stage. For Gov. Romney, the only thing on his mind was a good debate performance. The President doesn’t have that luxury.
Debates give the public a look at the candidate beyond the campaign trail. Do you think this debate informed the public, especially undecided voters?
The candidates have an agenda—they want to present themselves in the most positive way and portray the opposition in the most negative way possible. Sometimes it just comes down to how likable they are and how much confidence the public has in them. A lot of people aren’t going to think deeply about the issues. They’re going to go with their gut, and they will support the candidate who they find to be most friendly, honest and relatable. For many people, it’s much simpler than we make it out to be.
Plus, a lot of people are habitual voters; they always vote Democrat or they always vote Republican. Unless something big happens to upset that habitual pattern, it’s unlikely a lot of voters will change their minds. Swing voters make up a relatively small number of people. Most people have already made up their minds.
Tonight’s debate features both vice presidential candidates—current VP Joe Biden and challenger Paul Ryan. How do you think the candidates will perform?
I think the debate is going to be very difficult for Paul Ryan. He’s been told there’s a lot that he can’t say because many of his beliefs may not be acceptable to voters who are in the middle. Ryan and Romney do not agree on all issues, but when they don’t Ryan is expected to follow the Romney lead. So that’s a bit of a handicap, because as a candidate, you are who you are. Trying to pretend you’re someone else is a difficult task. When Ryan debates Biden, he’s going to have to fit into a box that the Romney campaign is allowing him to operate in. Plus, Biden has already been through presidential debates—as both a presidential candidate and a vice presidential candidate—so he has more experience than Ryan.
The format for the first presidential debate involved a moderator who asked questions and timed candidates’ responses. The next presidential debate is a town hall format, where undecided voters will get to ask the candidates questions. Do you think the format of the debate has much bearing on the outcome?
It’s not clear how well each of the candidates will do in a town hall meeting. I think Obama might do better in that format because he’s among the people, like he would be at a rally—he is generally viewed as an extraordinary speaker, enthusiastic and exciting, especially by his supporters. But I could imagine Romney being a very successful presenter—making business deals, being involved in sales and structured presentations, etc. They have obviously different styles, and ultimately it will come down to how the media ends up defining or spinning their performances, whether in the debates or on the stump.
Debates have moderators, fixed response time and defined questions. On the stump, it’s the candidates’ show—they can argue their points and say what they want.