Posted by: George | October 4, 2012

Obama vs. Romney: Expectations and Presidental Debates

Debates are about perceptions.

During the weeks leading up to the debate last night, the first of three presidential debates between Obama and Romney, surrogates were downing playing expectations. Don’t expect too much from Obama. He’s a busy man. He’s not a good debater. Don’t expect too much from Romney. He’s up against an incumbent. He’s not spontaneous. Both candidates wanted to be underdogs in the dog fight over who will be top dog.

Romney definitely won the battle of low expectations. He is just emerging from one of the worst periods—roughly a month—in the history of presidential campaigns. The period began with Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair and ended with Mother Jones releasing a videotape of Romney calling half our fellow citizens bums.

Most of the country expected Obama to handily beat Romney. I don’t think anyone expected Romney to do a Rick Perry meltdown, but a lot of us expected a Romney sound bite that would dominate the spin, something like the “I’ll bet you $10,000” statement.

But Romney handled himself pretty well. He exceeded expectations, so he won the debate.

In the world of my objective analysis (my narcissistic little bubble), I would give Obama a slight victory. I personally felt that he outperformed Romney, but not by a wide margin. Obama did not quite meet expectations, and Romney significantly exceeded expectations. Hence, the clear victory to Romney.

As I watched the debate, I was concerned that Obama seemed to laugh at Romney’s jokes (does he really think he’s funny?), that he looked down too much (taking notes?), and that he might have come across as too aggressive (he at one point told Jim Lehler that he had five sections when Lehler told him he was out of time, then he took another forty-five seconds to finish his response). This morning, I was surprised that Obama was viewed as stiff, passive, and bumbling. Sarah Palin, bless her little heart, said, “I almost felt sorry for him.” Ouch.

The last time I was this surprised by reactions to a debate was 1984, October 12, the morning after the Vice Presidential debate between George H.W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro. I thought that Ferraro clearly won the debate. Bush seemed, contra to gender stereotypes of the time, sappy and distracted. Ferraro, also contra to stereotypes, seemed calm, in control of her material, and forceful. The morning after, the general consensus was that Bush won. Of course, democrats and women sided with Ferraro a little more than the general public, but the perception was that Bush won.

Today, I watched the Bush-Ferraro debate on YouTube and read the transcript. Twenty-eight years later, I still think Ferraro gave the better performance.

Here is one of Ferraro’s rebuttals to a Bush answer:

I, I think what I’m going to have to do is I’m going to start correcting the vice-president’s statistics. There are 6 million more people who have jobs and that’s supposed to happen in a growing economy. In fact in the prior administration, with all their problems, they created 10 million jobs. The housing interest rates during this administration, for housing for middle-class Americans, was 14.5 percent. Under the prior administration, with all their problems, the average rate was 10.6 percent. If you take a look at the number of people living in poverty as a result of this administration, 6 million people, 500,000 people knocked off disability rolls. You know, it’s, you can walk around saying things are great and that’s what we’re going to be hearing, we’ve been hearing that on those commercials for the past couple of months. I expect they expect the American people to believe that. I’ll become a one-woman truth squad and we’ll start tonight.

Compare this to Bush’s answer to a follow-up question about trickle-down economics:

Mr. White, it’s not trickling down. And I’m not suggesting there’s no poverty, but I am suggesting the way to work out of poverty is through real opportunity. And in the meantime, the needy are getting more help. Human resource spending is way, way up. Aid for Dependent Children spending is up. Immunization programs are up. Almost every place you can point, contrary to Mr. Mondale’s – I gotta be careful – but contrary of how he goes around just saying everything bad. If somebody sees a silver lining, he finds a big black cloud out there. Whine on harvest moon! I mean, there’s a lot going on, a lotta opportunity.

Let me paraphrase. Good things are up. Bad things are down. Every silver lining does not have to have a black cloud, ya know. Gotta, lotta, golly gee. And, while we’re at it, whine on harvest moon!

Can we really say that Bush The Elder won this debate? I don’t think so. What we can say, I believe, is that, in 1984, America was not ready for a woman to be President or even Vice President. Most Americans expected Bush to win. He didn’t make overt mistakes, so he won.

Last night, Obama was supposed to destroy Romney. With this as the expectation, a slight edge is a stunning defeat. Of course, I might be biased. Read the transcript thirty years from now and let me know what you think.



  1. I couldn’t help wondering whether President Obama was sick or had been up all night, because he seemed so unlike himself.


    • Shannon, a positive spin on the first debate: now Obama can win the low expectations game for the next debate.


      • Your comment and Toran’s made me smile. Expectations vs. hope . . .


  2. James is so disturbed, he is temporarily boycotting the news. I am leaning forward in my seat waiting for the SECOND debate.


    • Toran, I am with James. I haven’t been able to watch the news.


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