People watching last night’s debate will form their own opinions and those who missed it can still do so; they can watch video or read the transcript. Everyone will have reacted differently. Emotion will no doubt play a roll in perceptions, as will ideology.
But how people reacted is perhaps less critical than how the media will spin the result, because more people will read about the debate than will have watched it. Pundits began this process even before the opening salvo last night according to the ancient precept that battles are won or lost before they are fought.
But sometimes battles are won after they are fought. For example, how will the candidates use the results of last night’s contest to their best advantage to shape voter’s perceptions, not only of the debate but of their overall position?
Of more immediate concern is how the mainstream media used last night’s debate to shape the narrative: Romney won, they all seem to proclaim, whether they make that their headline or not. And whether it is intentional or not, the media perception seems to be that somehow, by being aggressive, Romney won. Rather than focusing on what was said, they focus on how it was said.
For example, CNN says that Mitt Romney won the debate. They say he’s the more “forceful” debater (he’s certainly the more energetic liar).
And then they say something curious:
“He aggressively criticized the president’s record while also outlining, however vaguely, his own ideas about taxes and the deficit.”
Did vague suddenly become a positive attribute? I’ve never heard of vague being held up as a virtue in a debate. Forceful and vague? And this is good?
And outlined. That’s been the problem all along. Romney and Ryan won’t do more than outline their plans. Ryan said he has no time for details. Romney just says he doesn’t care to give them. He said a debate isn’t the place for it but Obama had no plan providing the details for him.
As Democratic strategist Paul Begala observed, Obama debated the Etch A Sketch man.
It is sadly indicative of Republican politics these days that when the Romney campaign said they wanted to create “moments” in the debate, what they really meant was “lies.” Everyone knew the zingers were coming. It would be more helpful to the American people, if less helpful to Mitt Romney, if the mainstream media would focus a little more on substance and less on flash.
As Jason Easley wrote here last night, however good Romney might have looked to the faithful last night, Obama’s strategy, whether intentional or incidental, simply provided more ammunition for the Obama campaign.
You can bet the folks at whichmitt.com will find themselves with an abundance of handy video to add to their collection of Mitt changing his position at every turn. He’s held them all but let’s face it, you can never have enough video.
Every lie will be documented, held up for examination before the American people, and carefully, artfully, flung in Romney’s face at the most opportune moments.
Does Romney really think he can successfully run a campaign based on lies?
McCain and Palin also ran a campaign based on lies. Remmeber their use of sound bites? They had one for every occasion and their debate style, as I remember it, was to repeat these at every turn, no matter what question was asked.
That did not work well for McCain and Palin. Romney might think he and Ryan are likable enough to lie successfully but that has not been the case so far.
Some noticed that Obama looked tired, that he lacked the energy displayed by Mitt Romney. And it would not be surprising if he was tired; he’s the president after all and he has demands on his time beyond campaigning or practicing in front of a mirror. But as Maryland governor Martin O’Malley pointed out afterward, Obama has a “dignified reserve.”
Politico quips, “Obama snoozes and loses” but I don’t see it. Energetic or not, Obama repeatedly pinned Romney down, if not on every fact then still on many, and Romney repeatedly looked like a whiny liar trying to weasel his way out of trouble.
And with regard to Christie’s claim that the debate would change the narrative of the campaign, I don’t see it. Sure, Obama should have challenged Romney more but let’s face it, Romney didn’t exactly roll over Obama. And the American people know no more about Romney’s plans for them this morning than they did yesterday morning.
We have Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) saying as Romney finished his closing statement, “We have a new race, ladies and gentlemen.” But is that fact, or is it simply that Republicans wished for it so badly that it had to have happened?
Republicans needed a game-changer. It is likely therefore that they will stubbornly insist that what they saw – what America saw – was a game-changer, even if they are the only ones who think so. They have already proven they refuse to believe the polls, claiming they are being deliberately skewed.
It is unreasonable to expect the American people to buy their assurances now that Romney won.
So what else can we bring to bear? There is no denying that post-debate polls gave Romney the win: CNN and also CBS (HuffPo goes into details about both polls for those interested). We can also examine the reactions of politicians, but those will fall out mostly along party lines. Pundits are also divided.
It remains to be determined how the outcome will affect the overall polling, whether or not Romney was able to close the gap or not. And the vice presidential debate on the 11th will be impactful in that regard as well. This one debate will not have decided the election one way or another. Perceptions will continue to be shaped.
The mainstream media has, inevitably, already spun the results in Romney’s favor, and this will continue to be true even as the Romney camp complains of media unfairness. This is the same thing we saw happen in 2008 with the GOP’s disdain of the media that did all it could to hand them the election.
And you might remember that in 2008 the media also claimed debate victories for McCain and Palin time and again while it was Obama who successfully shaped the narrative of the campaign for voters.
In the end, it is undeniable that Obama failed to put Romney away, though it’s debateable whether or not that was even possible. The mainstream media has never been a friend to Barack Obama and they will never be. The president’s ability to reach past media-built perceptions directly to the American people has always been his strength.
Let’s face it: the Republicans have argued themselves into a corner. They have to claim victory whether they won it or not, and the corprorate media will be eager to agree. But it will be the American people who decide, ultimately, who won last night’s debate.
The first debate is history, the spin machine has spun, but it is a mistake to think that Barack Obama is done with this debate, or to assume that immediate perceptions of it will be the voter’s last perceptions of it.