President Barack Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney faced off for the first time this election season during Wednesday’s presidential debate at the University of Denver. Here’s a breakdown of what was said, what went right and wrong and how it may impact the election.
Moderator and former anchor for PBS NewsHour Jim Lehrer began the debate by announcing that there would be an “emphasis throughout on differences, specifics and choices,” yet the second of these was conspicuously missing from Romney’s statements. The debaters spent the first 20 minutes arguing over whether or not Romney’s tax plan, which he claims will not increase the deficit due to deductions and loopholes, is mathematically feasible.
Obama repeated that Romney’s plan to reduce individual and corporate tax rates would result in $5 trillion in tax cuts, which he said would not be balanced by eliminating deductions and loopholes and would therefore result in either a deficit increase or a greater tax burden on the middle class. Romney would not name specific deductions he intends to address, nor would he agree that his rate adjustments would cut tax revenue by $5 trillion. Lehrer’s attempts to press him were also unsuccessful.
Many media outlets criticized Lehrer for not using a firmer hand in moderating the debate. Both candidates frequently went overtime, forcibly interrupting Lehrer when he insisted that time was up. His attempts to keep the debate on-topic and ask questions about specific aspects of candidates’ arguments were also overrun by the candidates.
The debate was intended to consist of six 15-minute segments: three on the economy, one on health care and two on the role of government and governing. In actuality, the first five segments ran over, leaving only three minutes for the final segment. Both candidates became sidetracked on economic issues, with the segment on entitlements bleeding into health care despite Lehrer trying to keep it on track. The health care portion focused primarily on the pros and cons of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” with Romney declaring he would repeal and replace it with another plan, which he detailed only when prompted by Obama. Romney also criticized Obama for spending two years on the Affordable Care Act in a perpetually struggling economy, a criticism to which Obama never quite responded.
Presidential debates are as much about demeanor as they are about declamation, and Romney appeared more confident and less distracted. He also initially made better use of personal stories, referring to people he had met on the campaign trail who had told him about their unemployment woes. Obama did not use such a story until the 36th minute of the debate, by which point Romney had already utilized the technique in three separate instances.
Obama was also criticized heavily for frequently looking down at the podium as he took notes on Romney’s points. It was difficult to see what he was doing on camera, however, so his note-taking did him few favors in terms of presentation. It may, however, have helped him content-wise, as he was better able to respond to specific accusations made by Romney. Romney frequently dodged questions: in addition to the $5 trillion tax cut argument detailed above, he also never came out and said whether or not he supported turning Medicare into a voucher program despite being directly asked.
A poll by CNN found that 67 percent of registered voters who watched the debates felt that Romney had won, while 25 percent felt that Obama had won. Still, an NPR poll on Thursday found that among likely voters, Obama still leads by seven points at 51 percent.
Content can only carry a candidate so far on television, where appearance and mannerisms are crucial. If Romney can continue to come across as assertive and confident, the debates could very well narrow the gap between himself and Obama in the polls. However, he will need to stop avoiding specifics in his answers to connect with more detail-oriented voters.
Obama, on the other hand, missed opportunities to come down harder on Romney and will need to capitalize on the former Massachusetts governor’s gaffes and vagueries to pull ahead in the debates. Speaking more naturally and fluidly will also aid Obama in coming across as resolute.
The next presidential debate will be held Tuesday, Oct. 16 at 9 p.m. ET at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. and will be moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley. Next week, Vice President Joe Biden will face off against vice presidential candidate Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) on Thursday, Oct. 11 at 9 p.m. ET at Centre College in Dansville, Ky. ABC’s Martha Raddatz will moderate.