First Presidential Debate Refocuses Race

Romney's Performance Energizes Supporters, Obama Appears Not Fully Engaged

Wed. Oct., 3, 2012 at Magness Arena at the Daniel L. Ritchie Center - University of Denver, Denver, CO                      DEMOCRACY IN ACTION photo
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By Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action

Former Gov. Mitt Romney delivered an animated performance at the first presidential debate Wednesday night in Denver, giving a significant boost to his prospects in November, while President Barack Obama disappointed many of his supporters with a lackluster presentation. 

With little more than a month to go until Election Day, and voters in some states already taking advantage of early voting, both candidates are seeking to appeal to the remaining undecided voters.

Although some have derided the presidential debates as scripted affairs, and questioned whether or not they even matter, this one clearly did.  Going into the debate Romney's campaign appeared to be in a downward trajectory.  He endured a difficult month of September, to the point that some observers were starting to think the race was all but over.  Romney's convention speech at the end of August was almost upstaged by actor Clint Eastwood talking to a chair.  President Obama meanwhile achieved a convention bounce, and by the end of September polls showed Romney trailing by small margins in most of the swing states.  On Sept. 16 Politico reported on tension in the campaign ("Inside the campaign: How Mitt Romney stumbled").  On Sept. 17 a secretly made video of Romney at fundraiser speaking dismissively of the "47 percent" dealt his campaign a significant blow.  In her Sept. 18 column in the Wall Street Journal ("Time for an Intervention"), columnist Peggy Noonan wrote of "a broad and growing feeling now, among Republicans, that this thing is slipping out of Romney’s hands." 

Pre-debate expectation-setting (1, 2, 3, 4[PDF]) suggested that Romney would benefit from having participated in, and done fairly well in, 19 debates during the primary season.  He also did extensive practice over the past month, including debate camp in Vermont in early September.  Obama held a number of practice sessions, but his presidential responsibilities and outlook may have made it more difficult for him to get in the right mindset than for the full-time candidate Romney.

On the stage at Magness Arena at the University of Denver, Romney appeared comfortable, he opened with some humor, and he was assertive, challenging moderator Jim Lehrer.  Post-debate commentary and the next day's headlines (seizing the offense, taking the fight to Obama, battering Bam...) widely presented Romney as the winner.  The Denver debate shelved the "Romney in trouble" narrative, at least for a while.

This was the first debate in which the CPD used a format with defined segments.  The objective was to focus more time on big issues (+).  Moderator Jim Lehrer seemed to struggle to rein in the candidates, particularly Romney, at times (1, 2).  Whether the format made for a more informative evening is open to debate, but viewership was solid; the debate drew an audience of 67.2 million according to Nielsen.  Twitter reported that "there were more than 10 million Tweets this evening, making this first of the 2012 presidential debates the most tweeted-about event in U.S. politics." (+)

Even the Obama spinners had trouble after the debate; as the spinning session progressed into the evening many of them abandoned the space, leaving it mostly occupied by Romney advocates.

Barry Blitt's illustration on the cover of the Oct. 15 issue of New Yorker magazine presented a clever view of Obama's performance: Blitt portrayed the debate stage with Romney debating an empty chair.