Live Blogging Tonight’s Presidential Debate

We are on. I’m told there’s a good political crowd tonight at Middlebury’s Karl Rove Crossroads cafe, but I’ve decided to stay in familiar territory, in walking distance of the scotch.   We’ll be watching Wolf and the gang on CNN.  Please join in!

Unfortunately, CNN is running one of those asinine “fact checking” enterprises tonight. As I’ve blogged about before, many (most?) political assertions are not the type that a fact-checker can unambiguously label as “true” or “false” – usually they occupy a grey area of partial truths.

They’ll also have the “focus” group of “undecideds” that will be quizzed after the debate to see who “won.”  Keep in mind that verdicts regarding who “won” are only tangentially linked to whether the outcome will change votes.  So there are really two contests going  on tonight – the debate, and then how the media scores the debate.  I was pleased to see that most of the pundits in the runup to tonight were downplaying the likely impact of this debate.  That persuades me that political science research is having some impact!

First false assertion of the night comes from David Gergen – “we all know that style matters.”  Uh, no we don’t know that at least in terms of changing votes!  Also keep in mind that less than half of those who will vote this year are likely to be paying attention to this debate.   Moreover those who are watching are already likely to have their minds made up – one determinative of who “wins” depends on the composition of the viewing audience.  If more Democrats tune in, Obama will “win” this debate. If more Republicans, the victory goes to Romney -no matter what each of them say.

Anna Esten chimes in to say there’s a full house at the Karl Rove Crossroads cafe —-here’s a shout-out to them, and I hope they send their comments in.  We are looking for a record turnout tonight.  Here’s what I want to see:  Mitt:  “Can I call you Barack?”  Barack: “No.”

I don’t expect any game change.  I don’t expect Mitt to be very loquacious but he will stay on message.   And they are on.  Remember, both sides have been trying to lower expectations here.  If they are to be believed, they both are horrible debaters.

Look for Obama to remind voters of how bad things were, and to stress that things are improving. Mitt will disagree. Remember, the main audience tonight are swing state voters.   Hence the quick reference to the automotive industry.  “Economic patriotism” – cue symbolism.  Mitt – first two state references: Ohio, Colorado.  Mitt comes out on message.  For Small business.  Against “trickle down government”.

This is actually starting out as a substantive debate, thanks to Lehrer forcing Obama to respond directly to Romney.  Biggest objective of Mitt is to show that he’s not a guy protecting the rich.  Didn’t take him long to parrot Joe’s “crushing middle class” phrase!

Mitt coming out aggressively here – just as he did during the primary races. Let see if Obama reminds people of his tax cuts.  (Fascinating to see how surrogates on both sides are already chiming in on twitter.)  Obama will not let Mitt off on the charge that he has to raise taxes to meet his spending plans.  Mitt just compared the President to one of his five boys.  How does that play?  I tell you what is playing well – references to small business!

Is it me, or do I see Obama’s comments playing better among women?

The first Donald Trump reference – a zinger!

(here’s dedication – Jeff Cason tuning in at 3 a.m. in Italy – that’s what our political science department is all about!)

As he did during the primaries, Mitt make a debating rules claim.   “It my turn”.  That recitation of poor growth was Mitt’s strongest point of the night to date.

Several of you have remarked that Mitt is looking at Lehrer, or the President, but not the camera.  I don’t think it matters a bit.

Mitt would cut Big Bird and Obamacare.  Ouch!  Again, it seems to  me that women are responding more positively to Obama than are men.  No surprise, given the size of the gender gap, but it seems impervious to whatever either candidate is saying.  Further evidence that these debates are changing minds.

I was wondering if Obama would dredge up that debate moment when no Republicans would trade spending cuts for smaller tax hikes.

Word just came that the WiFi has crashed in the Karl Rove Crossroads cafe – we need Karl to donate more money.  Mitt is scoring heavily here on his promise not to raise taxes and go down “the paht of Spain.”   Obama is on potentially  dangerous ground here – he’ll need to focus on corporate taxes. Each candidate is doing a good job staying on their familar themese – Obama here focusing on outsourcing.

First mention of Solyndra – Ouch!  Mitt scored with women!  He’s rolling, and Jim has lost control.  Mitt has certainly prepped for this – and he is staring the President down.

I think Mitt did pretty well on the budget deficit reduction round.

Round Three: Entitlements.

(Twitterverse is delivering a blow by blow account of this, but they are describing alternative universes.  Fascinating to see…..the one saving grace is most people are paying no attention to the twits.)   Look for both sides to stay away from social security, at least that portion affecting seniors.

Here comes the Medicare cuts charge – it’s not clear that Romney’s Medicare plan cuts any less.  (Obama looking down a lot recently.  He seems very reserved – playing it cautious?)

Obama smartly focuses on “near elderly” in discussing Medicare.  and he smartly brings in the Ryan plan, and once again characterizes Mitt’s plan to reform Medicare as a voucher program.  It’s hard for Mitt to win on this issue.  It’s too easy to scare voters. Remember, this is crucial for Florida voters. Note that Bush’s effort to peddle a version of the Romney plan went nowhere.  I just don’t think this plays well for Mitt.  Note that Mitt is trying to disassociate his plan from his own VP candidate Ryan.  Note that all Obama has to do here is criticize Mitt’s plan – he doesn’t have to indicate how he will save Medicare.   Mitt has to push him on this.

Regulation.  Mitt turning the tables on his own banking cronies – he’s trying to tie Obama to “banks too big to fail” – this is an effective tact to take.  Dodd-Frank is not particularly well liked.  Interesting here that Obama’s talking points refer to what Mitt said in “the past” as opposed to what Mitt is saying tonight.  Question: can Mitt change that perception based on tonight’s debate?  Doubtful…

Mitt’s points – to be effective – require the viewer to listen to what he is saying. Obama is speaking in broader talking points that he has used effectively on the campaign, rather than engaging directly with what Romney is saying.


Mitt playing much better here with men – women typically are stronger supporters of programs – like Obamacare – designed to protect the less vulnerable.  Obama defends the most popular portions of Obamacare – covering preexisting conditions.  Women are liking this – men not so much.

Lehrer has lost control.   Let’s see how Mitt defends Romneycare….Ooh, first Nancy Pelosi/Harry Reid reference….and a spirited effort to differentiate Romneycare from Obamacare……Let’s see if it sells.  it won’t if Obama has his way.  Once again the gender gap appears – see my Economist post!  Classic illustration of what causes the gap – it’s not what pundits have us believe.

Men actually  going negative on Obama when he castigates Romney for pushing to repeal health care.

I think the debate about the “unelected board” has probably run its course.   Or maybe not.  Mitt persists.  Obama won’t look at him. The longer he has to defend the board, the worse it is.  He needs to go on the offensive here.  and he does by trying to cast doubt on all of Mitt’s plans.  He’s got “secret plans” – wow, men simply hate this line of attack by Obama, women do not.  Mitt tries to cast his “secrecy” as a willingness to compromise to get things done.  Mitt’s defense of federalism plays well with men.

Obama better on this segment than on the deficit, but Mitt scored as well.


this might be interesting.  Obama is going to embrace free enterprise, and focus on that part of government – education – that people like.  Again, see the gender difference in discussion of teachers, education.  but Mitt is going to do well here. At least with men.

Cue Captain Kirk – Mitt’s quoting the Constitution, but he remembers the words!   He’s doing well here to present a kinder, softer image.  Mitt was ready for this debate. The President looks a bit fatigued.

Paul Ryan just tweeted an attack on the President’s health board.

Somewhere Gwen Ifill is fuming – Lehrer is not running this show.

Romney zinger (you’re not entitled to your own facts) doesn’t fly.  But overall, if we were scoring this debate in high school terms, Mitt would be winning on the basis of the specificity of his answers, energy level, responding directly to Obama’s punches.  But – we don’t score presidential debates this way.  it will be interesting to see how the media spins this in the debate aftermath.

But, give Mitt credit – he did what he had to do tonight.  I expect the President will rebound next time.  He needs to be better prepared – hard to do that when you are President, however.

Mitt strikes a blow for bipartisanship – where did I hear that previously?  You know – bringing change to Washington?  Thinking….thinking…..oh that’s right.  If only it was that easy.


Obama has to nail this – he had all the time to practice.  And he goes right to the automotive industry, outsourcing of jobs…Wow, is he winging this?  Wow, a lame close.  He looks exhausted.  Wonder if he fell prey to Reagan’s 1984 debate prep disease and overprepared.  Not a strong close.

Let’s see what Mitt does.  He’s looking at the camera now.  He’s trying to make this both a referendum and a choice.  The President is not pleased with what Mitt is saying. A solid close for Mitt, but not overwhelming.   Time to trot out the spouses!

Ohh – a “scientific” poll!  Wolf is excited!  (Of course, it’s “weird science”)

The Romneys will not leave the stage!

Ok, how is this playing on other networks.  Wolf is giving this night to Mitt…..and so are the other pundits on CNN.  Gergen salivating over Mitt’s performance.  “I had not expected this.”  He blames it on Obama not being used to people talking back to him….Rumor has it that Democrats have abandoned the “spin room”.  Even Carville is giving this to Obama – says he gave the impression that this whole thing was a lot of trouble.

It has to be tough to prepare for a debate.  But already Obama surrogates are beginning to blame Lehrer for allowing Romney to bully the President.  Uh oh!  There’s trouble in River City! Stephanie Cutter is the one attacking Lehrer.  You know your candidate did poorly when you blame the moderator! I would point out that the President actually got more speaking time.

A couple of points: I was not surprised that Romney did well tonight – as I told my students, Romney is an underappreciated debater.  He enters with a game plan, and he sticks to it.  I was surprised that Obama’s energy level was as low as it was.  A second point: this is a reminder that it is harder for an incumbent in some respects because he has to defend a record, while Romney has the advantage of going on the attack.  Third point: don’t confuse judgments regarding who won as an indication of how voters will react.  Most voters likely didn’t watch this debate.  This means the media spin is in some respects more important than how the participants actually did tonight.

But Wolf, citing his years of experience, is making the case that Romney, by challenging the President, will move the polls in his direction.  Bold words by the Wolfster…..

Meanwhile, Gergen says is Mitt had lost this, the race would have been over.  Instead, we are now in a horse race.

By the way, great participation tonight.  We nearly broke the debt debate record.   But this makes me very worried for Election Night at the Karl Rove Crossroads Cafe – I may have to ban social networking that night to save the WiFi feed.

I haven’t seen this yet, but apparently a CBS KN instant reaction poll is calling this as a “Big win for Romney. By 46-22 say think won, 56% have better opinion of Romney, Romney cares up from 30 to 63.”  I haven’t seen the polls internal, so take this for what you will…

Bottom line: historically, polls do not move numbers very much.  I don’t expect this to be any different, despite near consensus that Romney “won” tonight.  But, Romney did what he had to do, given the limits of any single debate to make any difference.  And, potentially in a very close election (which is what our forecast models are predicting) every bit helps.

That’s it for tonight.  Time to break out the scotch.  I’ll be on with a post-mortem/media spin roundup tomorrow.  Expect the media to overreact to this and suggest the race has fundamentally changed….. .

UPDATE:  CNN did their own focus poll, which also showed Romney winning comfortably: “BREAKING: Results of CNN-ORC Post-Debate flash poll. Who won the debate: Romney 67%, Obama 25%. +_ 4%”   Again, I don’t know the composition of the sample, but it is certainly more media fodder.  It will be interesting just how badly the media spins this for Obama.





  1. Leher’s done an awful job, Romney sounds a heck of a lot more polished, and Obama’s come down with the Kerry disease

  2. What would I do about partisan gridlock? Dissolve the parties and declare a dictatorship.

  3. Overall, Mitt has looked much less fake than he did during the Republican debates–he didn’t have any of those moments where you just felt he couldn’t possibly believe what he was saying…

  4. I really feel Mitt looked a lot better tonight. He was more educated, better spoken, and stood strong to Obama. I had high hopes for Obama and he fell well short.

  5. Don’t know which channel you’re watching, but on PBS, Gwen Ifill got her zing in. Meanwhile, I await my moment on the national stage as a throwaway line in a presidential debate.

  6. Lehrer looked like a ‘death panel’ just ruled against him. Obama was boring. Romney was competent even if he was ambiguous.

  7. Well being British, and being pretty uncertain where both Obama and Romney were going with their debate, I found it to be an anticlimax. According to Matt Dickinson, these debates will not affect how people vote, I think I can agree with him there. Anyway, all-in-all I found it a thoroughly enjoyable cultural experience. Looking forward to the Vice-Presidential debate!

  8. First, this: “Word just came that the WiFi has crashed in the Karl Rove Crossroads cafe – we need Karl to donate more money.” Bravo, bravo

    Second,”Mitt strikes a blow for bipartisanship – where did I hear that previously? You know – bringing change to Washington? Thinking….thinking…..oh that’s right. If only it was that easy.” Kinda makes you want to throw Koger’s Filibustering book at Jim Lehrer doesn’t it?

  9. Face it; it was an old fashioned “ass-kicking”; no other way to describe it.

    Obama is unable to defend his own record, because it sucks.

    Obama is lost without the TelepromTer.

    Ryan will be equally effective. The facts are troublesome things.

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