Second Thoughts On The First Debate

A few additional thoughts on the first debate last night, and its aftermath:

Although Jim Lehrer almost immediately lost control of the rules and format — initial two-minute answers, moderator-led discussion, 15-minute “issue pods” — I’m glad that happened.  Because Lehrer shrank into the background, we got to see direct give-and-take between the candidates.  They took the discussions where they wanted to go, and the results were revealing.  We also were spared the annoying time limit hectoring we’ve had to endure in prior debates.  The ultimate price of Lehrer’s lack of zeal was that only three minutes were available for the last, “governing” issue pod.  I’m sure America will somehow manage to stoically endure that loss.

I watched the debate on CNN, which had a real-time male/female favorability reaction meter running throughout the debate, and I later caught the Frank Luntz focus group on Fox.  These kinds of reaction measuring devices are familiar to trial lawyers, who use focus groups and mock juries to test potential courtroom themes, and they are always interesting to watch.  The peril of focus groups, however, is that they often confirm that viewers (or potential jurors) hear what they want to hear.  One member of the Luntz group, for example, thought Mitt Romney was too vague, another specifically disagreed and said he heard lots of specifics.  They both watched the same debate.  If you are the candidate (or the trial lawyer), which perception do you credit?

The Luntz focus group overwhelmingly thought Romney won, and some members said he changed their voting decisions.  Their big takeaways were that Romney was more decisive and also more capable for reaching a bipartisan consensus on issues.  Those aren’t exactly consistent qualities, yet Romney managed to convince focus group members that he could do both.  Sending that dual message is no mean feat.

I also watched MSNBC, where some commentators bemoaned the President’s performance as lackluster and also thought Romney pushed Lehrer around.  That reaction is interesting, because the President occupied far more debate talking time than Romney did.  Indeed, on one occasion the President overrode Lehrer to get “five more seconds,” then spoke for a much longer period, and on another occasion Romney cordially accepted Lehrer’s instruction that it was time to move on.  It’s another example, I think, of perceptions being colored by preexisting views.  It’s just human nature to blame the refs when your team is losing.

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