Sunday, 7 October 2012

Yes, Obama's Shitty Debate Performance Matters

Debates don't matter, some people say. Except, of course, when they do. Historically speaking, a weak debate performance from an incumbent rarely alters the outcome of an election in any meaningful way. Debates come along too late in the game - most voters have made up their minds already about who to vote for and a little rhetorical flourish, or an appearance of self-assured confidence for 90 minutes in a controlled environment won't convince anyone to vote for candidate X or abandon their support of candidate Y. Moreover, most people watching are not crucial swing voters - but those with active interests in politics; in other words - those who have probably already made up their mind. Sure, Obama 'won' all of the debates against John McCain in 2008, but McCain was an especially weak opponent and let's remember - Obama also lost all his debates against Hillary. Equally, Reagan got flattened by Walter Mondale in the first 1984 presidential debate - turning in a tired, confused performance against Walter 'One State' Mondale. Debates are more political spectator sport than pivotal moments, and a lacklusture yet competent performance by an incumbent may not spell death for his campaign. Conversely, a commanding performance from a challenger can generate a bout or two of favourable headlines without significantly affecting either voter turnout or swing-voter preference.

Still, there are exceptions to the rule - instances where either an exceptionally poor or especially strong performance from either candidate (usually a combination of the two) has generated enough momentum to propel a previously losing challenger to victory. There is, of course, the Nixon/Kennedy debate from 1960, in which a visibly unwell, nervous and perspiring Vice President Nixon convinced enough voters in an historically close election to switch their preference to the photogenic Senator Kennedy. In 1980, a warm, folksy performance laden with one-liners from then-Governor Reagan, combined with a colourless phone-in from President Carter shifted Reagan's lead from 2 points to 5 points, pushing it outside the margin of error. Whilst Reagan winning 44 states suggests he probably would have won that election anyway, the lesson is that debates can produce a small bump in the polls which, in a close race, can mean everything.

The question is not whether or not debates matter, but how they matter. If both candidates fight to a draw, or even if the challenger is judged the slight victor, as with Senator John Kerry in 2004, the underlying dynamic of the race is unlikely to change. Kerry may have been more in command of the facts and figures, or seemed more at ease behind the podium, but that didn't alter the perception that he was a soft-on-terror dullard. When Reagan lost his first debate to Mondale in 1984, the worry was that he was too old for the job - a concern which lasted until Reagan himself defused it with a quip about not making age a central issue of his campaign - in particular his opponent's "youth and inexperience." Advantage Reagan - that debate certainly mattered.

President Obama's performance on Wednesday night certainly ranks up as one of, if not the single worst debate performance by a sitting President in US electoral history; it wasn't just that Romney won (a more effective debater, say, Bill or Hillary Clinton could have easily picked apart Romney's full-of-shit performance) it was also that Obama lost. Legendarily, epically lost. Whilst he didn't perspire like Nixon, he certainly seemed tired and unfocused, as if he'd only been told about this debate during a 3am phone call the night before. Whilst he didn't seem old like early-onset-alzheimers Reagan in 1984, he certainly seemed confused - meandering through rehashed talking points. Whilst he didn't sigh like Al Gore in 2000, he uneasily smirked and looked down at his podium whenever challenged by Romney; when Romney lied and said he'd never proposed a $5 trillion tax cut, Obama's riposte was to simply say "okay" and appear to hang his head in embarrassment. Jim Lehrer was, of course, a terrible moderator, but where Romney saw an opening and took on the role himself, Obama said "sorry" when his answers went on too long.

Mitt Romney's performance was a dramatic reinvention of a candidate with perhaps more ideological malleability (read: lack of principles) than any candidate in recent US electoral history. On Wednesday night, the American public was sold a conservatism moderated out of existence. Whilst Lehrer strove to draw a clear ideological distinction between the candidates, there seemed not to be any - the Mitt Romney of the past few months was absent - instead we had a compassionate, grandfatherly champion of the middle class seeking to draw the line between himself and his opponent on grounds of competence, not conviction. Mitt Romney is, in this sense, the first postmodern candidate - his 'truth' dependent on circumstance, audience and electoral goals; his lack of a definable reality or 'self' paradoxically being the essence of his character. The question that even Romney's supporters have been wondering over the past few years is: who is the 'real' Mitt Romney - the answer to which seems to be that the 'real' Mitt Romney is more like a quantum state than a human being; a waveform of possibilities, required only to adopt a defined state once one an observer is present.

It's easy, therefore, to see why Romney is generally seen as a particularly skilled debater, because preparation against such a person is more or less impossible - you'd have to prepare to debate all eventualities, and be aware that the person you've been hearing these past few months may not be the guy who shows up to the podium. What remains baffling is that the Obama campaign didn't predict this outcome and instead expected Romney to walk right into the trap of trying to sell a largely unpopular, Ayn Rand conservatism to the public, which Obama could easily outgun. So confident was Obama in his victory that he even referred back to talking points from his 2008 campaign (!) to attack a Tea Party GOP candidate who seemed to not have shown up that evening. Of course, Romney no longer needs to convince anyone of his extreme right-wing credentials - the right are so terrified of losing to Obama this November that they'll happily throw their support behind a candidate able to beat the President so resoundingly in a debate, even if the Romney they saw on Wednesday fails every ideological purity test they've placed on their candidates for the past 4 years.

And yet in the end, this was the President's loss, rather than Romney's win; if Obama loses in November, he will only have himself and his extraordinarily lukewarm debate performance to blame. Truth be told, Obama's campaign has been phoning this thing in whole year round - I defy anyone to name me anything particularly interesting, inspiring or substantive that the President has said in the past few months. In reality, Obama's rising poll numbers can be credited to a successful convention in which he managed to remain one of the most boring elements, and an opponent moving from blunder to blunder in a comedic, farcical campaign, which managed to disparage nearly half the country. Now things have changed - Romney's most recent transformation is making this election a battle for swing voters based on competence, and Romney is nothing if not competent. Whilst Wednesday's debate may not matter in the grand scheme of things (there are, after all, two more left to go in which Obama can turn this around), it certainly has the potential to be looked back on as the moment that Obama, either through complacency, arrogance or apathy, lost the election.

(Images from The New Yorker, Salon and The Guardian, respectively.)

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