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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Viewer Preparation For That First Presidential Debate

President Obama and Mitt Romney are busy preparing for their first debate, set for October 3 at the University of Denver.  With the first debate less than a week away, that means the rest of us need to prepare, too.

For all of their build-up, the debates usually are a yawner.  We’d like to see something shocking, spontaneous, hilarious, or intensely revealing, but it never happens.  Wouldn’t you love to see a candidate take a chance and do something to shake things up, like Mitt Romney coming onstage wearing a top hat and monocle in a humorous bid to deflate the “out-of-touch rich guy” mantra?  Of course, no candidate wants to take the risk that a bold effort or answer might backfire, so they play everything close to the vest.

As a result, for every memorable debate moment — like President Reagan, in response to a question about age, promising not to hold Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience” against him, Mike Dukakis’ robotic answer to a question about his wife getting raped, or Al Gore invading George Bush’s personal space — there are countless hours of tedious blather.  Adding “new” formats, like a “town hall” where “ordinary citizens” ask screwball questions, hasn’t changed the dullness quotient.  Does anyone remember anything about the Dole-Clinton debates in 1996, the Bush-Kerry debates in 2004, or the Obama-McCain debates in 2008?

What do viewers need to do to get themselves ready for the debates?  First, go to the grocery store and buy the biggest grain of salt you can find.  You’re going to need it for the silly pre-debate expectations management game and the post-debate spin and posturing.  Second, and speaking of the post-debate spin cycle, every viewer should do some preparatory eye muscle exercises, so they don’t harm themselves by uncontrolled eye-rolling in response to an outlandish claim that one candidate or the other committed the most awful gaffe in the history of politics.  Third, laying in heavy supplies of Five-Hour Energy, coffee, and Jolt Cola is a good idea, to help you make it through the droning “serious” question about education policy by a camera-hungry member of the panel of reporters and the equally droning answers of the candidates.

And during the first debate I predict every viewer will check their TV for mechanical failure at least once, because moderator Jim Lehrer’s sober visage will not have changed.  No need for that:  Lehrer, who pursuant to federal law has moderated every president debate since the Hoover administration, isn’t actually alive, but instead was manufactured decades ago when animatronics hadn’t progressed to the point of allowing nuanced facial expressions.

Time to get ready, America!