Debating Lessons and Campaign Momentum

I feel a bit of the pain that the Democrats felt after the first presidential debate. ” Why didn’t my guy talk about … ?”; “why didn’t he call the other guy out on his gross distortions ?”; “how did we ever agree to that moderator?” By chance I experienced the emotions first hand when I recently did a debate on NPR about the candidates’ economic policies with the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It ain’t easy, but here are some learnings:

First the bad:

1. It is difficult to determine when to challenge your opponent’s distortions. (There are few actual lies, just a lot of deliberate distortions.) The audience generally likes the conflict, but gets bored with the details, there is usually not a clear TRUTH, and you want to spend your time talking about your positives. Even the next-day fact checkers will usually split the difference. Romney’s choice to cede the 7.8% unemployment rate without discussion might have disappointed some partisans, but it allowed him to spend his time on the larger picture – a good call. Overall there was too much contention both ways.

2. It is critical to have internalized the best opposing arguments during your preparations. Rob Portman’s preparation for the first debate had Romney on the top of his game. This time, Romney was taken back by Obama’s assertion that he had called the Benghazi attack terrorism on the following day (and by moderator Crowley’s intervention as part of Team Obama.) This was true to a point, but there are numerous devestating follow-on points which went unsaid – at least until the next debate.

3. You will miss opportunities. Another green energy company went bankrupt on Tuesday, costing the taxpayers $250 million; Obama’s White House pays women substantially less than men; Romney really could have shown a personal side by offering the college student some advice on finding a job rather than going immediaterly to the “50% of college graduates are unable to find a job” criticism.

4. The fear of a mainstream media bias is real – and should be limited by getting detailed agreement on format and the role of the moderator before the moderator is selected. Crowley publicly repudiated her instructions to not become part of the story, selected a larger share of “social issues” questions than in the first debate, gave more time to Obama (ditto the prior two debates), and interrupted Romney 28 times to Obama’s nine – not letting him answer on health care, for example. That’s beside her support for Obama on Benghazi.

And the good:

1. What really matters is the big facts. The economy sucks; Obama has no plans to fix it; Romney has a plan; Romney has demonstrated that he understands business and can fix things. People may get lost on how many oil wells were drilled on public land, whether the capital gains tax will be 15% or 20%, and whether Obama’s pension plan has investments in China, but they do get the big picture.

2. Romney was ready on the obvious big challenges – his active championing of women in his Massachusetts administration (the importance of his record is reflected by the force of the Obama campaign’s effort to ridicule his “binders of women” comment), his approach to immigration and Obama’s failure to deliver on his commitment to Hispanics, his commitment to 100% of Americans, including the 47%.

3.  What gave Romney momentum after the first debate was his blowing up the caricature of an uncaring plutocrat. Obama’s efforts in that direction in the second debate fell flat (“Romney has a one point plan – help the rich”) and the late question about what is most misunderstood about him gave a great opportunity to talk about his counseling work in Boston and the Olympics. He could have used more humor and better connection with the questioners, but Obama set the tone.

4. Most importantly, it matters what you spend the debate talking about.  Many of the snap polls had Obama doing a bit better than Romney in general with Romney doing significantly better on the economy, jobs, and taxes. Fox and MSNBC focus groups of “undecided voters” both showed movement toward Romney. Perhaps the most telling sequence of the debate was the response to an African American voter who was disappointed by the lack of progress under Obama – the president had nothing to say; Romney gave a concise litany of economic failure and broken promises.

With three weeks to go Romney and Ryan have shown that they are qualified, serious, viable alternatives to Obama and Biden. The polls two days after the “Crowley debate” show continued movement in Romney’s direction. It is time to be thinking about potential game changers – an unlikely major failure by Romney in the October 22 foreign policy debate; a spectacular attack on the jihadists who attacked the consulate; an unanticipated foreign crisis.  This would seem to be about where Team Romney had hoped to be three weeks out.


This week’s video is an ad funded by Thomas Peterffy, a successful Hungarian immigrant, who lived with the results of a socialist system.  He eloquently captures the perspective of immigrants who frequently speak at Tea Party rallies.