Having appeared stumbling, humourless, overly conservative, faltering and gaffe prone for months, tonight Mitt Romney stepped onto the stage in Denver, Colorado and promptly looked magisterial, gentlemanly, well briefed, confident and sincere.
Really, who knew?
Little wonder his aides and advisers were reported to be “ecstatic” afterwards.
A CNN flash poll of registered voters found that by 67-25, they thought Romney won. It was a small sample but big enough to be significant. At Wellthisiswhatithink, our own viewing of the debate confirmed it. When Romney spoke, he was generally in positive area on the worm indicator. When Obama did, he struggled to shift the worm into the positive, and it came back to even stevens or below and especially whenever he was lecturing or self satisfied.
The CNN poll also asked Who Seemed to Be Stronger Leader? Romney won this again, 58% to Obama’s 37%. Although perhaps the silver lining for Obama in that in the post-debate poll fave/unfave numbers for both candidates were mostly unchanged.
The Opposition must oppose, of course. So on the measurement Who Spent More Time Attacking His Opponent? Romney 53% led over Obama – 30%. Obama was obviously busy being Presidential. And that was a good tactic, because it’s his to lose, and Romney’s to win. Interestingly, though, the Romney attacks don’t seem to have segued into negative emotions from the voters – a sure sign that his criticisms were seen as justified, and not mere carping.
In one last interesting statistic, Who Did Debate Make You More Likely to Vote For? resulted in Romney 35%, Obama 18%, Neither 47%. Revealing again, in our opinion, that the electorate as a whole is battered, cynical, largely un-engaged, and will vote for one candidate or the other begrudgingly.
But you know what? I would love to see that figure for those who self-identified as undecideds before the debate – because as I say, if the worm was to be believed, Obama did markedly badly against these.
It’s a simple fact that very few people ever change from Republican to Democrat or vice versa … swings are generated from the 4-6% of genuine undecideds (also known as swinging voters or floating voters) who will sometimes move one way or the other on election day. I suspect that Romney did himself no harm at all with those voters tonight.
What will be missing from most commentary the day or two after the debate is why Romney did so well. In this, as a professional public speaker, I think I can shed some light for you that may not come from elsewhere.
it wasn’t essentially presentational. The political machines know how to get people ready for these things now – this isn’t Kennedy versus Nixon any more. So … both candidates smiled, talked to camera confidently, were courteous with each other, and yes: they are both good looking guys. Tick for both.
But some other observations will help us delve a bit deeper.
The tone for the whole hour and a half was set in the first 45 seconds. Talking to his wife on their wedding anniversary, Obama opened with “next year sweetie you won’t be celebrating our anniversary in front of 40 million people”. Romney and the audience duly giggled.Yes, it was nice, but it seemed planned. Also, calling the First Lady “sweetie” might have seemed a good idea when the speechwriters suggested it, but frankly demeaned a woman who would probably whip both of them if she was on the ballot. He might well call her “sweetie” in private. None of our business. Just not on national TV, please.
Romney’s riposte was good – it seemed natural, not planned, which, of course, it was. He said ” And it’s so romantic spending it with me”. Instantly all that “he’s an automaton stuff” seemed wrong. “The man has a sense of humour? He can be self-deprecating? He’s quick witted? Wow.”
Soon after, Romney’s folksy answer on the economy – talking about people approaching him and wife looking for jobs – was stronger than Obama’s defence of his record. And this is the real issue Obama faces – people are not necessarily sophisticated in their understanding of economics (which Obama is, and as a result he frequently cannot get his rambling discursive answers “down” to their language level) and all Romney has to do to draw blood is remind people that real, worthwhile, ordinary people – not dole bludgers – can’t find work, and Obama’s biggest Achilles heel is nakedly there for all to see.
It was, as always, very interesting watching the “worm” on CNN – it is always the case whenever I watch these things that positive answers make the worm trend upwards.
Obama’s problem was he has so little positive to talk about. One exception was Obama talking about not using tax breaks to be “helping companies that are shipping jobs overseas” – it caused a very positive spike for Obama and reveals that uncertainty about the morality of Romney’s business career, not to mention the flow of manufacturing jobs overseas in itself, is a hot button issue for people. Accordingly, I expect to see the Obama campaign focus much more intently on picking apart Romney’s tax plans over the next two weeks.
But Romney talking on middle-income Americans also caused a very strong spike – Romney was doing well time and again when he stuck to his ” I will save the middle class” story. Why? It de-focused attention on his own vast wealth, and also spoke to all those people who in America consider themselves middle class – which as anyone who knows Americans will confirm is almost everyone, despite the fact that the middle class is actually vastly outnumbered in reality by the working poor and the unemployed.
Simple facts, presented with passion always resonate.
In general, throughout the debate, Romney scored well because he spoke more simply, and more obviously. In an example that most commentators will have missed, but which added strongly to the atmospherics, he made a strong point about energy exploration and energy independence, for example, when he said that exploration permits had been cut by half on Government land in the four years of Obama’s reign.
But when Obama presented a positive fact, even when he did so simply, it was nearly always against the backdrop that people blame him for the economic situation in the US right now, and were therefore essentially doubtful about anything he claimed as a success. So whenever Obama said “we have done something or other” his worm actually flatlined or dipped. Ouch.
Whether or not this credibility gap is enough to see him defeated is still up for grabs. But it revealed that his camp has a fight on its hands.
With the oil issue, for example, it would have passed almost un-noticed by most people that Romney also took the opportunity to quickly say that he would allow offshore drilling in Alaska – but most interestingly Obama left it completely alone, when I am reasonably sure that candidate Obama from four years ago would have seized on it and talked confidently about big oil despoiling the wilderness that he would protect for all Americans. Obama then was the golden boy. Obama today is the statue with feet of clay. And he knows it.
So he didn’t embark on a scathing denunciation, he let it bounce through to the keeper. Which might have been him trying not to “go negative”, but in my opinion was more a sure sign that the strength of Romney’s performance was rattling him. As was the increasing number of times Obama used … “er” …. “and, and” … and other delaying “thought gaps”.
Also – and his advisers have to summon up the guts to deal with this – he has a dreadful habit of sounding like a University lecturer – which, of course, he is.
At one point he said “Let’s look at taxes … because it’s instructive” – and the reaction of women dipped instantly – they just don’t like it when he speaks professorially.
“It’s instructive”? What’s wrong with “It tell us something important” or “It’s revealing” or “We need to examine this.”? “Instructive” is simply not a word that ordinary people use. Bang – the President is not like me, right there.
I made a number of notes during the debate that “Romney has got the President sounding negative, and it’s not working for him.” I also noted that “Romney has him addressing his points – Obama needs to kick positive”. In other words, Obama conceded the course of the debate to Romney. Fatal.
In general, when he talks, Obama does well with women when he speaks seriously, but less well with men with whom he clearly has a credibility gap on the economy. At one point it was very interesting – instructive, even – that when they were both getting stuck on tax detail, Romney was excellent when he again talked about a small electronics business and how much tax they’re paying. “More than half of what they make”. Boom! goes the average American’s mind – is that fair? No it isn’t. Romney says it, Obama can’t (otherwise why hasn’t he done anything about it?). Simple facts, simply presented. And well briefed.
Sometimes Romney got it wrong too. Talking about the President picking winners and losers in alternative energy companies, he cheerful intoned “You can pick winners, you can pick losers, you just pick the losers” – and women instantly tanked, although men stayed strong. If that was a scripted line – which I suspect it was – that scriptwriter should be instantly fired.
Romney also skewered Washington effectively. “States are the laboratories of democracy not the federal government” produced a great response despite it’s high falutin’ tone and language. Obama originally got elected – in part – because he was an outsider. The danger for his campaign now is that it has painted Romney as so much of an outsider that he will reap benefits from being anti-centric, despite being a long-term Washington insider, both in business and politics.
So – the wash up? Well, Romney got it right, and Obama got it wrong.
In my opinion, hubris was the cause. Just didn’t prepare well enough, and it showed. To be fair, he’s been off busily being President, I guess, especially with the Middle East going mental again. But the real problem, I an sure, is that no-one in the Obama camp would have thought, for a moment, that Romney would come out swinging anything like as effectively as he did.
So he was inadequately prepped. As an Obama supporter, I hope someone has the guts to tell him “you need to listen to me, Mr President.” He would do worse than to read this blog, frankly.
They will surely not make the same mistake again. He will be better honed, better able to present his positives in smarter soundbites, and armed with more wounding barbs.Which is why, ultimately, despite the surprising strength of his performance, that Romney didn’t score a knockout blow.
In short, we still have a long way to go.
Two more Presidential debates, and a Vice Presidential debate, and there was no real knockout moment anyway.
But he definitely got himself back in the game.
As I said, the news tomorrow will be all about “Whooaaa! Wait! Who is this guy? Where has he been?” I expect him to see a small bounce from this performance. Maybe as big as 1-2%. It will be a big talking point. And for a candidate largely written off as a no hoper, that’s news with a capital ‘N’.
However, as a seasoned observer of elections (I have not got one wrong for about thirty years, in the countries I am interested in), I still think Romney is still the one with the uphill task.
It is not generally understood (even by the commentariat) that Romney must win ALL the swing states on offer to overhaul Obama’s electoral college votes from the states that are comfortably ironed on to him currently.
This task will be hugely difficult, especially as in some of the swing states – Florida is the classic example – where Romney’s plans for Medicare are not going down at all well. What you don’t see in something like a Presidential debate is the local campaigning hammering away at people’s fears and hopes on a daily basis. All those phone calls, leaflets and doostep conversations matter a great deal.
I think that’s why Romney sought to position himself as the protector of Medicare. Obama’s crew won’t let him get away with that twice. They have been slow to nail his plans on it. This will wake them up.
But in general, the Governor will sleep a lot better than the President tonight.
Hear that? Game on.