ANALYSES

Obama – Romney: who won the debate ?

Interview
5 octobre 2012
Which candidate won the debate?

Romney won the debate but that does not mean he will win the election. He was more prepared, more vigorous and more engaged than Obama. Clearly he had not only polished his answers but undergone serious media training — to the point where his softer voice and more leonine bearing bore an obvious suggestion of Ronald Reagan. Romney also avoided coming across as snobbish, condescending, rich or a ruthless businessman. For the first time, he defended his record as governor of Massachusetts. As a result, Romney overcame most of the negative stereotypes of which he had been guilty until then. For once, he looked like a president, not like a candidate.

Obama was disappointing in the debate for the same reasons he has disappointed as president: lack of passion, an unwillingness to fight, a desire to remain above the fray and a tendency to lecture. In addition, Obama is a full-time president while Romney is a full-time candidate, so Obama probably devoted less time and effort (and, one suspects, less interest) to preparing the debate, relying more on a few repeated formulas. He did make it a point to project himself as humble — not a 'perfect' president — in an attempt to overcome the image of Obama the I-am-so-cool. So Obama looked less like a president, and more like a (not very enthusiastic) candidate.

The loser in the debate was the American people, as neither candidate really had much new to say, nor genuine specifics on policy. Despite his better performance, Romney referred to a 'plan' that nobody has seen laid out in full. Obama failed to defend his record and steered clear of attacking Romney personally. Most probably Obama was waiting for the gaffe-prone Romney to slip on a banana skin, but both emerged dignified and largely unscarred.

What were the issues debated and did anything new come out of the debate?

The focus of the debate was domestic issues and the discussion centered on the economy and medical insurance, namely the 'Obamacare' plan. Neither candidate delivered a convincing formula for increasing jobs, each holding to a different vision of how jobs are likely to be created. The sparring statistics shed little light and it is difficult to pin down the extent to which any real policy vision underpins them. There is a difference of philosophy between the two, the absolutely classic cleavage between right and left, more private sector vs more government.

The two agreed on the need to improve America's educational system — in other words, primary and secondary schooling — but again without detailed policy plans.

Not only did nothing new emerge, in fact the debate was so narrowly focused on the economy — including healthcare — that social issues largely passed by the wayside, except in some of Romney's concluding remarks. So abortion, gay marriage, immigration failed to get much attention at all.

What is the effect of the debates on American voters? Could Romney still win?

Debate about the debates is inconclusive and it is difficult to prove that they do or do not affect the outcome of the election. What is beyond doubt is that they constitute a moment of high attention by the public to the candidates. They mark a turning point in the long drawn-out American election process before which voters are bored and inattentive and after which they become more focused on the candidates and perhaps the issues.

The American electoral system provides for indirect suffrage through the Electoral College and a tally state by state, in stark contrast to the French system where all votes count the same. Consequently, winning and losing — as news coverage around the world begins to reflect every four years before the American election day — depends on Florida, or Ohio, or Colorado, or North Carolina, the so-called 'swing' states. For the time being, Obama continues to lead in virtually all the dozen major swing states and if his poor debating performance — or Romney's good debating performance — does not factor in heavily, then Obama could be looking at a minor landslide, or at least a solid win, in the Electoral College. On the other hand, if Romney continues to emerge into a more credible, presidential profile, and if he can then narrow Obama's lead in certain swing states, especially Ohio, he might squeak through with an Electoral College win even if he fell short in the popular vote. For the moment, it still looks like being Obama's election to lose, but in reality it is too close to call.