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The Debate In Historical Perspective


Looking at the historical data, a few observations:

  • Challengers generally do well with the public in the first debate — Kerry 53-37, Perot 74 Clinton 30 George H.W. Bush 16, Dukakis 38-29, Mondale 54-35.
  • The exception that proves the rule is Dole, who was perceived as performing horribly in 1996.   It seems to me that challengers have a strategic advantage in that they can propose magic ponies against an incumbent’s actual and inevitably compromised record.   But Dole, a long-time Senate leader, didn’t really have that advantage, which is one reason why long-term legislative leaders generally make made presidential candidates.   (That’s not the only explanation, of course — Kerry, while not a Senate leader like Dole, still had plenty of inconvenient votes to work with but won the first debate.)
  • As this record suggests, being perceived as losing the first debate by a lopsided margin isn’t exactly a death blow.
  • But Obama also lost with the public above and beyond any ordinary strategic disadvantage faced by a sitting president, so we have to be open to the possibility that this will have a greater impact on the race than unusual.
  • And, yes, we shouldn’t forget the strategic advantages Romney gained through his willingness to lie shamelessly.


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  • Snarki, child of Loki

    Reported that CNN’s post-debate reaction numbers came from polling “southern males over 50”.

    If true, it’s amazing that Romeny did so poorly!

    • Jim

      Specifically white southern males over 50, based on page 8.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Can we leave the poll trooferism to wingnuts?

  • Noticing that Perot first debate result, I think Obama’s strategy of expecting Rmoney to withdraw from the race looks pretty good.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    So does this mean that the media nonsense over Gore’s sighing didn’t lose him the election?

    • Scott Lemieux

      In and of itself? Probably not. I’m not sure who said it did. The 18-month campaign by the “liberal” media to portray as the World’s Biggest Liar, conversely, probably cost him the election ceteris paribus.

      • James E. Powell

        I go back and forth on this because I pay attention to politics so I have never been able to get inside the head of the typical American voter. But I am not sure whether it was more the War on Gore or the corporate press/media’s fluffing of Bush.

        It wasn’t just that they promoted a carefully constructed version of Bush. They also did not push on any of his weak spots. Given the way they had been going after Clinton for eight years, the fact that they never pursued the TANG thing is remarkable.

        So, yeah, the constant attacks on Gore were important, but today anyway, I think it was the promotion and protection of Bush.

  • You don’t win this game playing defense. Obama was too nuanced and too technical, and Mittens was surprisingly personable.

    Frankly, I question the point of the entire exercise. It would surprise the hell out of me to hear someone say that the debate had an effect on the way he or she intended to vote. Anybody who cared enough to watch must have been paying enough attention up to this point to have formed an opinion, and I very much doubt that the debate will motivate anyone to go to the polls.

    • Cody

      It might affect the people who don’t know what Romney’s ACTUAL policy plans are. Who are these his actual ones? I’m not sure, but what he asserted at the debate has not been his platform for 18 months. Obama even remarked on this at one point.

      • PSP

        Unfortunately, I suspect that the number of people who don’t know Romney’s Actual policy plans vastly out number of people who do.

      • The question, then, becomes whether style can prevail over substance? When we’re talking about ‘victory’ in a debate there is a certain point at which you have to look at the facts.

        That, of course, is why right-wing buffoons like Sarah Palin are complaining that over the longer-term the media may call the debate for the President – because they know what is likely to happen if the media turns up the heat on Romney to follow through – to substantiate his mathematically impossible tax cuts, to explain how his ‘plan’ covers preexisting conditions, etc. So they try to intimidate the already flaccid media out of doing its job, while suggesting that if it does do it’s job it’s a “facts have a liberal bias” sort of thing and Romney should still win based on style points.

  • c u n d gulag

    My question for President Obama is, do you realized that there are WOMEN in this feckin’ country?

    And do you realize that they were the ones providing your lead in many states?

    I know Romney sure as hell didn’t want to open-up THAT can of worms, and that mentally, Lehrer was already off fishing, but Mr. President, you, YOU, could have brought up!

    Jayzoos H. Keerist in remedial Aramaic, did you learn NOTHING from Bill Clinton’s full-throated support of women and their reproductive rights at your convention?

    In Charlotte, finally, we saw the Progressive Bill, instead of Equalateral Triangle Clinton.
    Did nothing rub off on you, Mr. Obama?

    But no matter what day, month, or year, Bill Clinton would have left Mitt a shimmering puddle of flop-sweat, weeping and begging for mercy, and having to be poured into a bucket and carried off stage by his 5 strapping sons, if he was debating him.

    Instead, we got cool, aloof, and bored, Barry.


    Simpson-Bowles AIN’T progressive!
    Not in English.
    Not in the original Austrian.

    Congratulation, President Obama, you couldn’t have unfired-up your base more if you’d taken a fire hose.
    Obama didn’t give women or Liberals any reasons to get fired-up for Election Day.
    Ok – maybe to keep Mitt, The Lying Coked-up Twit from taking the wheel.

    Mr. President, WTF were you thinking last night?

    Did you leave your balls at home, wanting to leave them fresh for your 20th Anniversary sexy-time with Michelle?


    • c u n d gulag

      Oy, and UNIONS, too!

      Maybe you could have mentioned them, eh Barack?

      • He should have just brought those issues up at random? Because I don’t seem to recall them coming up in the questions.

    • UserGoogol

      Eh, he’s talked about women and “women’s issues” quite a lot over the course of the campaign. There’s no particular reason why he has to bring up in a debate where that topic didn’t really arise organically.

  • Steve LaBonne

    I never watch these things, but reading about it, sounds like they both came across as who they actually are: Romney the snake-oil-selling management consultant and Obama the over-cautious dead-centrist pushing austerity lite (as he’s done since 2010). I really don’t know what else anybody expected. No surprises and thus, I expect, in the end no impact.

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  • owlbear1

    When Obama failed to rip Romney’s arm off and beat Lehrer over the head with it is when I lost all faith in him.

    • Ed

      No one asked him to rip any arms off, but it would have helped immensely if he hadn’t looked like a kid being made to eat his spinach. History suggests that he’ll do better next time. If he doesn’t then it could get interesting.

  • NBarnes

    I think the biggest thread I see here is Mitt’s furious shaking of the Etch-a-Sketch. His willingness to completely shed his previous policy stances in the face of being asked about them by Obama accounts for some (though hardly all) of Obama’s disjointedness, I think. It’s hard to prepare to debate someone who you simply have no idea what policy he’s going support once you collapse his quantum waveform. Anything you try to corner Mitt on, he can simply wave away his previous positions and make up something new and awesome sounding on the part. This also gets back to the enormous strategic advantage given to Romney by his willingness to lie baldly and repeatedly.

    After last night demonstrated that Romney has no intention of letting something so trivial as a policy position stand between him and the White House, I feel that Obama’s best strategy is to just let Romney lie a lot without making any serious headway, and let the newspapers fill a few new cycles with low-impact but real pieces about what a liar Romney is.

    • Sherm

      Yes. Its very difficult to argue against a polished liar who will lie about anything, particularly where the people you need to convince are too uninformed to know the truth. If you call your opponent out on the lies, there is a presumption that both sides are liars and people will just tune you out. To manage such a debate successfully, it takes skills which this president obviously lacks. His campaign will now have to go on the attack and hope that the media does its job.

      • NBarnes

        I don’t know that the Obama campaign needs to either go on the attack or hope that the media does anything in particular. Romney can lie his way to some momentary ‘He won a debate!’ press coverage, but the methods used undermine his abililty to convert that into the kind of swing in voting that he needs. Even if the media is lazy about the ‘Mitt is a liar, a damn liar, and probably a statistic’ thing they ought to be doing, it’s going to be hard for Mitt to come out of the debates with a shiny coat of New Hotness with that dogging him.

        • Cody

          Be prepared for the VP debates. Paul Ryan is a less skilled liar, and he will be attempting to repeat Romney’s claims. Biden likes telling people they’re full of shit.

          I can’t wait to watch this debate. The media should be on high alert of this debate for quick fact checking, and fully expect Biden to work over Romney via Ryan.

          • Biden tied one hand behind his back in the Palin debates, so he wouldn’t look like he was beating up on someone so far below his weight class.

            Not this time.

  • Scott, what’s the narrative today in the general press?

    “Romney may have won the debate but he wants to kill Big Bird”

    Who lost the debate, again?

  • Colin Day

    Perot 74 Clinton 30 George H.W. Bush 16

    Now that just doesn’t add up! Unless you can have 120% of the electorate.

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