100 Million Viewers

Network executives are predicting as many as 100 million people will watch tonight’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  That kind of audience is normally reserved for something really important, like a Super Bowl or the last episode of MASH.  The previous record for a presidential debate was 80 million viewers of the Reagan-Carter debate in 1980.

I wish I could believe that so many people will be tuning in tonight because they are interested in a sober, careful discussion of the many issues America is confronting and how to address them.  Unfortunately, we all suspect that’s not the case.  For many people, the debate is must-watch TV because of the spectacle factor — they’re watching to see whether Trump says or does something outrageous, or Clinton faints, or some particularly choice insults are hurled back and forth.  It’s like rubberneckers slowing down to check out the car wreck by the side of the highway.

I’m hoping that whatever portion of those 100 million viewers who are tuning in for a gladiator contest are disappointed.  I’m hoping that the candidates hold off on the obviously canned wisecracks, that the moderator lets the debaters actually debate the issues, and that an actual policy-oriented discussion breaks out.

But I’m not holding my breath for that result.

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.

Thoughts On The First Debate

An interesting debate — despite the odd, phony start in which the candidates talked about the President’s anniversary, and the somewhat flaccid closing statements — in which the moderator lost control almost immediately, and some good points were made by both candidates.  On balance, I think Mitt Romney bested President Obama.

I think it helped Romney to be on the same stage as the President.  It helped to legitimize Romney, and made the efforts by the Democrats to depict him as some wealthy nut seem silly.  The President treated Romney with respect, and treated his proposals as serious; at times he even nodded at points Romney was making.  I think that has to help Romney seem viable.  The President, on the other hand, seemed to filibuster and seemed distracted by a desire to get the full spread of talking points into his answers; that approach made some of his answers seemed disconnected.

Romney started off on the defensive on his tax plan, as the President pressed him on specifics, but Romney got his bearings.  I thought he seemed knowledgeable, and gave some great answers along the way.  His answer about the role of government, and his references to the Constitution, were just terrific, as was his answer about working with Democrats in Massachusetts to get things done and his answer about why he thinks “Obamacare” is not the right policy notwithstanding Romney’s approval of a Massachusetts health care plan.  The President talked a lot more than Mitt Romney did — but did he make wise use of his time?

Those are my thoughts, without listening to any pundits or spinmeisters.  Now, we’ll see what the American people think, as the points discussed in the debate sink in, and people talk about the candidates and their presentations over the kitchen table and the water cooler.  I’d be interested in hearing what the other Webner House contributors think.