Joe Biden was forewarned. When he did a walk-through at the site of his debate with Paul Ryan, he asked if there might be double screens when the debate was broadcast. Yes, indeed, he was told, though it would be up to each TV network and cable channel whether to show both candidates at once on a split screen.
Biden may have ignored how he might appear on one screen while Ryan was speaking on the other. Or he may have purposely run the gamut of disdain from mockery to disgust as he listened to Ryan. Either way, he played the fool—to the detriment of the Obama campaign.
That the debates have dominated the presidential race as never before is indisputable. And what’s most striking about them is how well Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan performed and how thoroughly President Obama and Vice President Biden misunderstood what was required to appeal to the broad audience of voters.
Without the debates, Romney would be on his way to losing the election. With them—and especially the first and third presidential debates—he now has a 50-50 or better chance of winning the presidency.
Why the first and third debates? Those were the ones in which a single moderator was assigned to give Obama and Romney 2 minutes each to answer a question, then let them go at each other for 11 minutes, as much as possible without interruption. This sequence was supposed to be repeated six times, only moderators Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer wisely didn’t insist on it. They allowed the candidates to talk far past the arbitrary time limits.
The freewheeling format aided Romney. He had plenty of time in the first debate to present himself as knowledgeable, reasonable, and likable—without the moderator breaking in. In the third debate, he was able to lay out his agenda for dealing with foreign policy issues, again absent the moderator’s intervening frequently with questions.
This wasn’t possible in the second presidential debate, with its town hall format. The moderator, Candy Crowley, repeatedly interrupted the candidates to summon a questioner she had selected to ask a question she had personally decided on. It was as if the questions were more important than the candidates—that is, more important than the president of the United States and the Republican presidential nominee.
As you might expect, Romney didn’t do as well in the town hall event. In the other two, however, he was also aided by a strategic mistake by the Obama campaign, a blunder abetted by the president’s contempt for Romney.
In leaks to the media, Obama let it be known he regarded Romney as a poor excuse for a candidate and someone not qualified to be president. His campaign, in turn, spent tens of millions on TV ads characterizing Romney as a cold-hearted, greedy, and immoral businessman—and right-wing extremist to boot.
Given their view of Romney, what happened in the first debate was inconceivable to them. To their shock, Romney destroyed the caricature they had created in their ads. What were viewers to believe, negative ads or their own eyes as they watched Romney unfiltered and in person on live television? Well, as everyone by now knows, they believed their own eyes.
Misjudging Romney wasn’t the only mistake Obama made. He and his team seemed to think that scoring debating points was the way to win a debate. The more points you score, the more lopsided your triumph. But Washington Post/ABC News polls found after each debate that voters had a better opinion of Romney—even after the debates they thought Obama won.
Had Obama’s strategists never watched the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan? Some may disagree, but I think Carter won on points. But, in 90 minutes, he lost his presidency. Reagan understood debates are won or lost on the overall impression a candidate makes. He made a positive impression while undermining any thought he might be a warmonger or extremist. With Romney, “it was 1980 all over again,” a Republican debate expert told me.
There’s still another lesson from the debates that was lost on Obama. Romney had participated in 20-plus debates during the Republican primaries. And he’d gotten better as the race wore on. After Newt Gingrich defeated him in the South Carolina primary, Romney responded by crushing Gingrich in the next debate and vastly improved his prospects of winning the nomination.
Obama, I suspect, didn’t think his lack of practice since the 2008 campaign would matter. But it did. He was rusty. It might have helped if he’d had numerous press conferences and faced an adversarial press corps. He hasn’t.
In 1984, I was one of three panelists in the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. Reagan made a weak impression and badly lost the debate. I think Romney would have lost in similar circumstances in which the candidates were forced to lurch from subject to subject. Fortunately for him, he didn’t have to.