Why Obama Lost the First Debate

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Robert Brent Toplin taught for many years at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and is teaching this fall at the University of Virginia. He has published several books and articles about history, politics, and film.

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan shake hands during their fateful meeting in 1980.

President Barack Obama did not lose the first presidential debate with Mitt Romney simply because he failed to deliver key talking points in a clear and strong manner. Obama's problem was more fundamental: he did not adequately recognize that there is a significant difference between a stump speech and a televised debate. If Obama had looked back at history, he would have seen that candidates succeed when they recognize that televised debates are a form of theater. A look at very recent history -- the 2012 debates in the Republican primaries -- could have given Obama useful insights on the theatrics of effective debating.

During Obama’s televised confrontation with Mitt Romney, the president spent very little time looking directly into the camera -- that is, into the eyes of the American people. Over much of the ninety-minute event, Obama spoke to the moderator, Jim Lehrer. Richard Nixon made a similar mistake in his debate with John F. Kennedy in 1960. Nixon, a former college debater, spoke to his opponent, while Kennedy frequently looked directly at the audience.

Nixon also appeared tired and drawn in the 1960 confrontation, while Kennedy, acting somewhat like Mitt Romney, seemed well-prepared to exploit TV’s potential for communicating messages to a large audience. With 67 million people watching in 2012, including many undecided voters, the October 3 event certainly called for careful preparation.

Evidently Obama and advisers who trained him for the face-off did not treat his TV appearance as a distinctive challenge. They acted as if Obama’s experiences delivering numerous stump speeches would adequately fortify him.

The two candidates approached the big day in strikingly different ways. Obama continued to give speeches to cheering crowds until shortly before the night of the debates. Romney took nearly a week off before the event, disappearing at length to practice. Mitt Romney arrived early at the debate site, spending days in Denver. He hoped to feel comfortable in the high-altitude environment of the “mile-high city,” where many people experience nausea or headaches upon arriving at 5,280 feet (there is 17 percent less oxygen in Denver than at sea level). Obama flew into Denver the day of the debate, arriving at 2:00 pm. The president’s automobile pulled into the University of Denver’s auditorium minutes before the debate began. Romney was already present in the auditorium, getting acclimated in the manner of a seasoned actor.

If Obama and his advisers had looked carefully at Mitt Romney’s record in the Republican primaries in 2012, they would have noticed that the GOP candidate performed rather poorly in the early debates, but eventually Mitt Romney recognized the theatrical nature of the problem. At one point in the primaries, Newt Gingrich was surging. Romney seemed halting, awkward, and indecisive in his arguments with Gingrich and other candidates.

Aides who were desperate to improve Mitt Romney’s skills in the televised format turned to Brett O’Donnell, a fabulously successful coach who made the debate team at a little evangelical institution, Liberty University, a major contender in college competition (O’Donnell had also coached several GOP presidential candidates). Shortly after O’Donnell schooled Romney in the theatrics of debate, the candidate dispatched Gingrich and went on to secure the Republican nomination. Pundits observed that Romney had suddenly turned aggressive, decisive, and dominant -- precisely the skills that O’Donnell fostered.

In some ways Obama’s performance resembled Jimmy Carter’s last televised debate with Ronald Reagan in 1980, the event that transformed Reagan into a strong favorite. President Carter, like Obama, did not vet his strategy with professionals skilled in the art of presidential debating. Occasionally Carter made statements that experienced advisers would have nixed, as when Carter said he asked his twelve-year-old daughter what was the most import issue of the campaign, and she said nuclear weapons. Carter’s comment became the target of many jokes on late-night television. Obama, too, gave television audiences memorable statements. Rather than hammer his opponent at a crucial moment in the exchanges, Obama confessed that he was not a perfect president.

Small gestures often become memorable in these debates. George H.W. Bush lost favor with voters when he looked at his watch during a 1992 exchange with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Bush seemed to want a fast conclusion to the ordeal. Al Gore sighed a lot when listening to George W. Bush in the first 2000 debate, comportment that many viewers considered disrespectful. Barack Obama’s surprisingly nodded in agreement when Romney delivered key arguments. Occasionally, the president smirked. Much of the time Obama kept his head down as he took copious notes. Memory of those gestures may linger in the minds of some voters long after they forget the candidates’ specific talking points.

Barack Obama should learn from Ronald Reagan, who had a frustrating experience against Democrat Walter Mondale in the first presidential debate of 1984. Mondale was well prepared for that event. His zingers threw the president off-stride. After the debate, pundits speculated that Reagan might be too old to handle the mental challenges of a lively exchange about policy. Ronald Reagan, of course, had a good sense of theatrics from his years as a Hollywood actor; he knew how to improve a performance. Reagan practiced his lines carefully and made a stunning comeback in the next event. One of the most memorable statements was Reagan’s promise that he would not hold “youth and inexperience” against Walter Mondale.

Preparing for a televised debate is a unique challenge. Familiarity with performance in stump speeches or press conferences cannot adequately prepare an individual for the event. A candidate must be aware of the distinctive theatrical qualities of a televised confrontation. President Barack Obama did not appreciate that uniqueness when approaching his first meeting with Mitt Romney. But Obama, like Reagan, can recover. He can summon lessons from history, past and recent, to improve his communication.

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