The Economy, Taxes—And Big Bird

Mark Kennedy, director of the Graduate School of Political Management, offers his insight on last week’s first presidential debate.

October 08, 2012

The presidential debate season is officially underway after President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney went head to head last week on domestic policy, covering everything from the economy to taxes to health care.

Who won? It certainly wasn’t Big Bird, despite Gov. Romney’s affinity for him. In the minutes, and now days, that followed the debate, analysts largely crowned Romney victor, and the polls agreed.

To offer insight on how Gov. Romney managed to do it, particularly through his speaking strategy, George Washington Today spoke with Mark Kennedy, director of GW’s Graduate School of Political Management and a former U.S. representative for Minnesota.

Q: What did you think of the debate overall?

A: This was one of the most lopsided debate performances that we’ve seen in at least a couple of decades, and Romney took the win. It’s not just me coming to that conclusion; it’s a pretty widely held view. A poll from CNN, which typically would be a left-leaning outlet, showed 67 percent of voters believed Romney won, while 25 percent said Obama.

Q: So what speaking strategies did Romney employ to give him a leg up?

A: We need to approach this from, what did Romney need to achieve coming into the debate? A few things. One was looking presidential—that he could stand on the stage with the current president and not appear out of place. The second was he had to increase his likeability and his connection with the average voter. And his many references to individual stories—something Obama is typically extremely good at—really helped to achieve that. And the third thing is he needed to define a contrast between his approach to getting the economy going again and growing jobs and Obama’s approach.

Obama, who went into the debate ahead in the polls, almost appeared to be letting Romney confront him but ignore it and just talk straight to the American people. If that was his strategy, it did not work. And it would be hard to imagine what other strategy he was planning to employ, given how he spoke.

Q: Why didn’t Obama’s tactic in speaking directly to the American people work?

A: A principal rule of politics is that you never let a charge go unanswered. It’s not generally a wise strategy to let somebody put something out on the table in front of that many folks and not answer it. I don’t know if he just didn’t have the responses prepared, they didn’t come to mind or he was deliberately trying to not engage in the back and forth.

Q: What were some of the standout moments for you?

A: What stood out to me fairly early on was that Romney was smiling, and smiling in a way that didn’t come off as a smirk. It was as if he was interested, engaged, almost happy to be there. When you are going to challenge your opponent as Romney did, having that real smile without it being vindictive or cynical blunts your criticism a bit. It’s hard to get the smile exactly right, but Romney managed to. Obama was stern and serious in all of his responses.

The second thing was, when you’re on TV, you have to have succinct, short answers. When you’re explaining, you’re losing. Obama was spending way too much time explaining. So he clearly hadn’t thought through the lines of confrontation that Romney would bring at him in a way that he could respond with a clear, succinct rebuttal. They were too long and too muddled.

The other thing I thought was vital was that Romney mentioned jobs about every 10th word, which he needed to. And there were many opportunities within Obama’s sentences when he could have mentioned jobs or the economy but he didn’t. In the end it appeared as if the only thing repetitive coming out of Obama was that Romney didn’t have enough details on health care, on his tax plan. So if that was his main thing, for that to be a good strategy, you’d have to believe that voters are more worried about a lack of details from Romney than they are about a lack of jobs for themselves and their children. And I don’t think that’s the case.

Really, though, commentary during the morning news shows was focused on how both Romney and Obama were using too many statistics and too many details in a way that wasn’t resonating with the average voter—just with the geeky elite.

Q: What did you make of Gov. Romney’s comment that he loves Big Bird but would cut the government subsidy to PBS?

A: When you think of who the undecided voters are, they’re the low-information public. They’re the ones that are sort of influenced by some stuff that those of us that spend hours each day thinking about politics would think to be silly. So whenever you can connect with the average person through pop culture—even when it’s just a comment about Big Bird—helps. The comment also helped him blunt Obama’s main line of attack that he wasn’t being specific enough. So this allowed Romney to, in the people’s mind, have a point of specificity that they could remember. It really had little downside impact to him.

Q: Who do you think delivered the strongest concluding remarks?

A: As a toastmaster, you count the ah’s and the pauses between words. As a politician, you should be able to just push a button and put out a closing statement like that. Obama really had a hard time. Romney had that straight, to-the-camera speech. I think that’s reflective of how prepared and comfortable each man was.

Q: In the end, will this debate have that much effect on the election? Will we see more polling change in favor of Gov. Romney?

A: We still have two or three lifetimes between now and the election. So yes, this lifetime, Romney won. This may marginally tighten it up a bit, but it always was tight, as a previous George Washington-POLITICO Battleground Poll showed. But it’s more likely that the president—not just President Obama, but any president—would get caught flat-footed on the first debate. There are two more presidential debates and the vice presidential debate left. Clearly Obama is going to watch the tape and come back in prepared for the next debate. It’s really the last debate that people would have most in their mind. So yes, this is a marginal benefit to Romney. But it’s not a knock-out punch by any means.