With all three presidential debates in the books, we can fairly ask: what is the role of debates in a modern election? According to the polls, the pundits, and the talk about momentum, the first debate this year was a significant game-changer in favor of Mitt Romney. Why? Was it because President Obama turned in a performance generally regarded as desultory, or was it something else?
I didn’t think the President’s performance during the first debate was as bad as it has been depicted to be. I think, instead, the key point is that people forgot the presidential debates are one of the few political events that are unfiltered. The candidates get a rare opportunity to speak to a national audience, in an unscripted setting, without any yakking by pundits or talking heads. And the national TV audience for the debate, moreover, is interested enough to pick a presidential debate from all other programming options in the modern video world, and therefore probably consists mostly of people who are likely to vote.
In this election, President Obama’s campaign strategy had been to run countless attack ads painting Mitt Romney as a heartless, out-of-touch moneybags who was George W. Bush, Jr. When all you saw was the ads, the strategy worked fine. But Romney’s debate performance was inconsistent with the ads. People watching thought: “Hey, this guy isn’t so bad. He seems pretty reasonable and knowledgeable. Maybe he really can get us out of this mess.” And with that unfiltered realization, millions of dollars in negative ad buy by the President’s campaign went out the window. In fact, Romney’s performance was so contrary to the ads that it probably not only helped Romney but also had a negative impact on the credibility of the Obama campaign commercials going forward.
Another reality is that the after-debate period is longer and more diffuse. People get their sense of how the debates went not just from a few talking heads on the major networks, but from countless TV stations, blogs, comedy shows, Twitter snarf, and social media sites. It may take days, and a few choice “Facebook ads” or Daily Show mocks or heavily reposted blog items, before people settle on what really happened. People in the spin room immediately after the debate no longer control public opinion, if they ever did.
In this election, we now turn to the “ground game” and the contest of which campaign can do a better job of getting their supporters off their duffs and out to the polls. Political operatives, however, will no doubt study the debates in the 2012 campaign and draw some significant conclusions. First, if you are going to go negative on your opponent, make sure you aren’t attacking on character or personality grounds that can be readily disproven in a 90-minute debate; otherwise, you will be flushing your hard-earned campaign contributions down the tubes. Second, don’t forget the after-debate period. As those precious undecided voters are trying to decide who did better, they’ll be looking at a lot of things — and if your candidate came across as disinterested and disengaged, or clown-like, or phony, it will eventually be detected and outed . . . and that will ultimately be the prevailing view of the masses.