In his interview with me for his column today on the larger-than-expected impact of the first presidential debate, New York Times’ media columnist David Carr wondered why the debate mattered so much, particularly given the fragmented nature of viewing audiences in the social media era. “How,” Carr asks, “is it that a ritual as old as Lincoln-Douglas — or Socrates versus Gorgias if you want to go all the way back to the Greeks — was able to move the needle at a time when audiences are so fragmented?” In my answer to him, I made a couple of points. First, debates still offer the only opportunity for voters to see both candidates on the stage together with each of them able to convey their views directly, rather than as portrayed through the other side’s negative advertising. Second, this was a widely-watched debate – the most widely viewed since the second presidential debate in 1992. (That was the one in which George H.W. Bush was panned for looking at this watch, suggesting he was bored with the whole affair. It also included third-party candidate Ross Perot.) Among first debates, it was the most widely viewed since 1980, when 70 million watched President Jimmy Carter square off against Ronald “There you go again” Reagan. Moreover, this audience number does not include those who tuned in via computers, phones or tablets, or who watched it outside the home. That means roughly half the number of expected voters in this election tuned in to watch the show, and for many it was the first time they seriously thought about who they wanted to vote for, as opposed to who they thought was getting the best of the media coverage.
Interestingly, a bit less than half that audience – about 31 million – came from the 55 and older set, compared to only 12 million in the 18-34 age bracket. Romney has generally been doing better among this older age group. Among media outlets, Fox News dominated the cable stations, with their total viewership during the debate almost matching that of the regular broadcast stations at CBS, NBC and ABC. All this suggests that Romney was able to capitalize on having an audience that was a least partly predisposed to want him to do well. And he didn’t disappoint.
Of course, as I’ve noted before, it is not unprecedented for the incumbent president to see a slight polling dip after the first debate; although the First Bush received a miniscule polling bump coming off his first debate in 1992, Clinton lost 1.5% in 1996 and Bush The Younger saw his numbers drop 2.3% in 2004. (Clinton, however, headed into that first debate in 1996 with a polling number near 60%, so his drop may have had little to do with his debate performance per se.) A glance at the RCP composite poll suggests that Obama lost more than 2% in his polling support after the Oct. 3 debate – that’s actually in the range experienced by both Clinton in 1996 and Bush in 2004. However, Obama was starting from a lower polling point than was Clinton or even Bush. Combined with Romney’s gain, Obama’s loss meant that we saw about a 4-point polling swing, which was enough to turn this race into a virtual dead heat.
It also raises expectations for tomorrow night’s second presidential debate which may attract a bigger audience than the already large audience that saw the first debate. That was the case in 2008, when the viewing numbers went up for the second debate, but not in 2004.
So, what should we expect? To begin, tomorrow’s event utilizes a town hall format, with Candy Crowley of CNN serving as moderator. One of the interesting aspects of Carr’s column was the degree of attention paid by the media experts he interviewed to Romney’s and Obama’s body language during the first debate, including their facial expressions which were caught on split screen. They seemed to think it made a big difference regarding perceptions of who “won” the debate. I don’t doubt that the media-driven narrative which determines who really “won” the debate is heavily influenced by perceptions of “body language.” But when it comes to determining how viewers vote, I tend to put far less stock in body language or facial expressions. It is true that the town hall format gives candidates more opportunity to interact with an audience, and with each other, which potentially allows more latitude for body language to come into play. For example, in their town hall-style meeting in 2000, Al Gore sauntered into Bush’s space while the latter was giving an answer, prompting some audience laughter when Bush gave him a bemused nod of greeting.
I mentioned above about Bush the Elder glancing at his watch. Maybe that mattered; in contrast to the first debate, he lost about 2% in polling support after the second one. In 2008, the second debate was also a town hall format, and it featured John McCain’s celebrated case of stage roaming, which was parodied in an unforgettable Saturday Night Live Skit. McCain was also perceived to have lost that debate.
Despite these memorable moments, however, I tend to think what the candidates say, as opposed to how they say it, will have a far greater impact on how audience members vote. In 1992, if Bush’s performance in the second debate contributed to his losing the election, it did so not because he looked at his watch, but because he gave a somewhat rambling, and defensive answer on a question that cut to the heart of the campaign: was he doing enough to dig the country out of an economic recession? In contrast, as you can see here, Bill Clinton’s response suggested he had answers to that question – or at least understood the reason for the question.
This is why town hall-style debates can prove troublesome – it’s not the physical interaction so much as the often more direct audience questions that can throw candidates. To be sure, these questions are vetted beforehand, but that still leaves room for audience spontaneity. Tomorrow night, the audience will consist of some 80 or so presumably “undecided” voters whose questions will be screened by Crowley, who also has the authority to ask a follow up question of her own. (Or at least she is asserting that authority!) Presumably, Crowley will pick questions that pertain to the central issues at the heart of this campaign: taxes, the budget deficit, and health care. Neither Romney nor Obama has shown Clinton’s ability to show empathy with a questioner – the Big Dog has the capacity to make questioners feel like they are alone in the room with him. In contrast, Obama conveys more of a professorial, somewhat dispassionate persona, while Romney can come across as uncomfortable or worse. But I don’t think that will matter nearly as much as what they say in response to these questions. If the President is not more effective at communicating the differences between his policies and Romney’s, and doesn’t do a better job putting Romney on the defensive, particularly regarding his proposed tax and Medicare policies, he’s going to lose this debate regardless of body language. That’s because when it comes to debates, the overriding maxim is “Hear what I say – not what I do.”