At least among the chattering classes, there is near-universal agreement that Mitt Romney clobbered President Obama in the first presidential debate.
Although it remains to be seen how or if the debate will affect the polls, Obama’s “stock price” immediately tanked on both of the major online betting markets, Intrade and Betfair.
There seem to be two clear conclusions to draw from the debate. One of them should shake up the “conventional wisdom” of what strategy you should pursue when you’re the incumbent President and you’re ahead in the polls.
- The “prevent defence”–a popular President playing not to lose–is a lousy debate strategy. In the first debate, Obama’s strategy seems to have been designed around the theory that the debate could only hurt him, not help him. As a result, it hurt him badly. What Americans saw on stage was not a “President” and a “Challenger.” What they were two men, one of whom was speaking much more confidently, passionately, and compellingly than the other. If being President was supposed to confer some special aura on Obama, that aura evaporated as soon as Romney won the first question. And for the rest of the night, what Americans saw was a man they normally think of as being a super-inspiring orator and leader seeming hesitant, inarticulate, and mystifyingly rattled by a good salesman.
- As long as you speak passionately, confidently, and compellingly, what you say really doesn’t matter. Romney tacked toward the middle last night, something that millions of independent voters have long hoped he would do. In doing so, however, Romney also confirmed the widespread suspicion that his plan is merely to say whatever he thinks most people in the audience want to hear. As last night revealed, at least in debates, that’s an excellent plan. Romney sold himself much more confidently and persuasively than Obama did. Voters who listened carefully to Romney can be forgiven for now having almost no clue what Romney will do if he is elected, but the impression they got was that he is a strong, capable, pragmatic leader who will do something. Obama, meanwhile, looked like a punching bag.
Above all, the first debate revealed that it’s not so much what you say as how you say it.
And Romney said it better.
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