Debate Forum

Can U.S. presidential debates really affect the outcome of the race?

Last week at the University of Denver was the first debate between presidential candidates Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. Both candidates were touted by their own camps to be formidable debaters.

President Obama’s camp was comfortable with his debating skills, having witnessed his dispatching of the very formidable Hilary Clinton during the 2008 primary elections.  If there had been any concern that his having not debated since 2008 would be a disadvantage, that fact was used as more of a reason to slightly lower expectations of the president’s upcoming debate performance rather than any real concern that he was not up to the task against Romney.

Governor Mitt Romney had survived the field of Republican contenders to emerge this spring as the Republican standard bearer. During those debates he had performed well, always finishing as either as the winner or near the top of the crowded Republican field in more than twenty debates. As his campaign suffered setbacks during the weeks following the August Republican National Convention, many in the GOP rank and file looked to the debates as an opportunity for Romney to steal back the momentum from Obama.

The first debate had a record number of viewers as 70 million Americans tuned into watch Obama and Romney square off. Early in the debate, it became evident that Romney was planning to take the offensive. He demonstrated both aggressiveness and confidence as he answered Jim Lehrer’s questions while staring directly at the president.  Most observers would agree he dominated the debate.

During the debate, the president seemed disengaged. Even his supporters were disappointed with the president’s performance. They expected the president to challenge Romney on many of the same points of attacks that his campaign has raised against the former Massachusetts governor. Even some of his most ardent supporters at MSNBC were angry at Obama that he allowed Romney to escape difficult questioning. By the next morning, the full effect of the Romney debate performance was reflected in the polling which showed that Romney winning the debate by a margin of 70 percent to 30 percent.

What effect, if any, will this one poll have on the election? First, there are two more presidential debates over the next three weeks giving the president a chance to show his debating skills which were missing last week. But how much effect does one poor performance have on the outcome of a presidential election?

The 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate was widely regarded by those who viewed it on television as a victory for the confident and photogenic John F. Kennedy. Interestingly, a majority those who heard the debate on radio and were unable to see the unflattering effect of his five o’clock shadow and the small beads of sweat on his upper lip, believed that Nixon won the debate. Kennedy won the election with a razor-narrow margin. This is an election where the debate might very well have affected the outcome.

In 1984, the first debate between Reagan and Mondale showed the world a less-than-sharp Ronald Reagan, but Reagan won the election in a landslide. Then there was the Carter-Ford debate where President Ford inexplicably insisted that Poland was not under the dominance of the Soviet Union. Carter won that election, but President Ford’s pardon of former President Nixon was more of a factor than his misstatement.

Forum Questions of the Week:

Who won the Presidential debate last week?  Have debates ever determined the results of the U.S. presidential election?

Debate Left

It is a presidential debate, not a cage fight

By Rana Odeh

“Who won the debate?” Well, if our presidential debate were a cage fight and you were watching it on TV, Romney would have won the first round. If you read the transcript … it’s a different story. On television, Obama appeared tired, unprepared, unconfident and defensive against a very aggressive Romney. Obama was calm, courteous and politely avoided interrupting Jim Lehrer from the PBS station (to which Romney vowed to cut funding, despite his “love” for Big Bird), while Romney was ready to interrupt the President of the United States and completely ignored Jim Lehrer when he attempted to moderate the debate, which was his duty. Romney very arrogantly and disrespectfully kept insisting on talking and having the last word past his time. There was even a moment in which I was getting frustrated at Lehrer for not doing his job well, but what more could he do than practically jump out of his chair with his arms in the air? Romney’s behavior comes from a lack of respect for others.

Romney was there for a fight, not a debate, and he was ready to change his position at any instance upon attack. Romney’s sensationalist performance on Wednesday night was meant to please the audience. He was willing to reject anything Obama said against him. Unfortunately, Obama was not prepared for the sudden change in Romney’s answer about the $5 trillion tax cut, which caused the humiliating circumstance in which Obama repeatedly used the same line of defense against Romney. The debate quickly turned into an argument between two teen-aged siblings: “Yes you did,” “No I didn’t … ” “Yes, you did.” The sad thing is, Obama reverted to his defense more than three times in the debate. I’m not sure what the Obama campaign was thinking when they let Obama get on stage with just about one line of defense … Romney ain’t no W, he definitely knows how to talk. In fact, he’s full of talk; it’s what he does best. I am just not sure why Obama didn’t have a backup argument; the least political person on the planet could have told him that Romney was going to do the Matrix-dodge against any criticism.

Although the on-screen debate was disappointing on Obama’s end, the transcript tells a completely different story. Obama held his own when he said “Well, for 18 months, he has been running on this tax plan and now five weeks before the election, he is saying that his big, bold idea is never mind and the fact is that if you are lowering the rates the way you describe, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class. It’s math, it’s arithmetic.” The only problem is that Obama did not make this statement with his usual confident tone or the same aggressive, enthusiastic tone that Romney was using, so the message was not as strongly conveyed. Obama made many great points about his achievements in helping the middle class with tax cuts, insurance, education, training and keeping jobs in America. He also did a good job in highlighting many of Romney’s plans that would hurt the middle class. Sadly, these great points were partly swept under the rug by Romney’s performance.

However, if you read the transcript of what Romney was saying, you would see his enthusiastic statements were all full of air. Romney had nothing meaningful or specific to say, he was just giving the audience a charismatic experience and a smile to go with it. Other than that, Romney repeatedly criticized Obama for wanting to invest in green energy, as if that is a bad thing. If Obama’s interest in green energy is his lowest point, and it is the one concrete thing Romney could pick on the most, then I think we’ve had a pretty good past four years. If Romney could only provide specifics on government cutbacks during his little moment about PBS and Big Bird, we have a problem. One CBS viewer commented “more than obvious that the man of many faces (Romney) has no ‘plan’ . . . No ‘specifics’ . . . Just more non ‘facts’. . .for it/then against it/then for it . . . Keep some/well no throw all out . . . Never said that/meant this … More ‘studies’ that supposedly refute FACTS & mathematics.” I could have said that verbatim myself, but this shows other Americans are able to see past the show.

I do not think we should be fooled by Romney’s sensationalist performance. Many people see past his façade and I hope that one debate alone is not powerful enough to sway any voter one way or the other. We need to be more responsible than to vote based on a television-broadcasted debate. At least read the transcript and pay attention to the dialogue, it paints a very different picture. It is easy to be persuaded by a confident and charming speaker, especially one who insists on having the last word, but you should also look at the content of his statements … full of air. If independent voters are persuaded by the debates, that’s fine, but one debate alone should not do the trick. You can watch, but make sure you listen and read, not just the transcript of the debates, but more importantly check the candidates’ statements throughout the campaign.

Rana Odeh is a DCP Debate Forum freelance writer. She holds a BA in English and Philosophy from UD and is currently a graduate student in the ICP Program at Wright State University.  Reach Rana at or view her work at

Debate Right

Romney like Rocky in debate, “cuts” Obama

By Rob Scott

For the first time, the American public saw the two candidates for president side by side. Presidential debates are an opportunity for voters to see both candidates sparring about each other’s vision for the country and rebutting each other’s views directly.

Although debates aren’t typically seen as deciding an election’s outcome, there have been a few exceptions over time.

With the first televised presidential debate in 1960, then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s telegenic dominance of then-Vice President Richard Nixon helped swing momentum in the Democrat’s direction. Interestingly enough, those who listened to the debate on the radio believed Nixon had won the debate. However, voters that watched the debate on television gave the debate win to Kennedy.

In a 1980 debate, facing a barrage of assertions and accusations from incumbent Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan replied with a smile: “There you go again.” This famous line ended Carter’s chances. After entering debate season behind in opinion polls, Reagan came out of the polls clearly ahead.

Sometimes body language matters more than words in a debate. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush took a glance at his watch while an audience member was asking a question – a move that made Bush, whose re-election hopes were rapidly slipping away due to floundering economy, was seen as uninterested in the concerns of the American public.

Sometimes it’s not the debate that hurts a candidate, it’s the spin game afterwards. In 2000, cameras caught a visibly annoyed then-Vice President Al Gore sighing and shaking his head when George W. Bush spoke.

The clip was played over and over again and lampooned on television by “Saturday Night Live,” to the point that Gore was viewed in a negative light.  A clear favorite before the debates, Gore lost his lead during the debate season. He eventually lost the controversial election after the Supreme Court ruled in Bush’s favor.

Flashing forward to the first presidential debate this election season at the University of Denver, Mitt Romney abundantly won. Whether you watched the debate on TV, as did an estimated 60 million Americans, or listened to the debate on the radio, Mitt Romney won in a landside both in presentation and substance.

Probably the most striking thing about the debate was not necessarily what was said but rather the nonverbals. Throughout the debate Mitt Romney looked at the camera or at President Barack Obama. He smiled and rarely took notes while President Obama spoke.

Contrasting was President Obama in his presentation. He rarely looked at the camera and never looked at Mitt Romney. During the majority of the debate when he was not speaking, President Obama was looking down and when he was looking up, he seemed angry.

As far as substance, Mitt Romney was in command of facts, as well as offering his vision for America. He spoke mostly about jobs and how he is the candidate with the skills to help create jobs.

President Obama offered essentially the same retread rhetoric from his 2008 presidential campaign. Nothing was a surprise and President Obama’s pitch was “I’m not finished, give me more time, and Romney is President Bush.” Obama spent most of his time attacking Mitt Romney about his plans for creating jobs, his tax policies, and lowering the deficit.

Romney had a couple memorable moments using phrases like “trickle down government.” Also, when President Obama was talking about tax breaks companies receive for sending jobs out of the country, Romney rebutted saying “I’ve been in business for over 25 years, and I have no idea what you are talking about.” Obama came off from the debate like he was uninterested and his answers were professorial.

Overall, this debate certainly mattered. Mitt Romney needed a boost heading into the last 30 days before Election Day. Romney’s performance breathed life into his campaign and helped deflate Obama’s campaign.  The tracking polls certainly give evidence for this fact, showing swing states where Romney has taken a lead or tied.

Most importantly what the debate showed is that Obama is vulnerable. All the public hears from the mainstream media is how President Obama is very intellectual and a great orator.

I liken the debate performance to “Rocky 4” when Rocky Balboa hits his opponent Ivan Drago causing him to bleed for the first time. Drago is viewed as unstoppable throughout the movie after killing Rocky’s friend, Apollo Creed. Rocky is the clear underdog and even agrees to fight Drago in his native land of Russia.

Similarly, President Obama is, or was, viewed as superior on the podium and had high expectations to clean Romney’s clock. Romney has been touted as boring and someone that is unlikable. Expectations were that Romney would be creamed in a debate setting against Obama. The exact opposite happened in the first debate. Romney, like Rocky, showed his ability to be the underdog and “cut” Obama for the first time.

Rocky wins in the end against Drago, but after several rounds. Romney needs a few more rounds.

Rob Scott is a practicing attorney at Oldham & Deitering, LLC. Scott is the Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party and the founder of the Dayton Tea Party. He can be contacted at or

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