The major difference between last night’s debate and the first debate was President Obama’s performance. Whereas last week the President seemed disinterested and weak, he was much stronger last night. He spoke quickly and more clearly and there were fewer verbal ticks and hesitations. Overall, he was much more confident. Governor Romney also gave a strong, confident performance. The town hall structure also allowed both candidates to utilize more expressive body language and several camera angles. However, I think both candidates failed to connect with the audience as much as they might have hoped. There were some tense moments between the candidates that were a bit uncomfortable to watch and I can only imagine what the atmosphere in the hall must have been like. Showing that much aggression probably did not help to humanize them or make them more likable. That should be a concern for both candidates as Romney has been characterized as being privileged and out of touch with the general population, while Obama has been criticized for being too aloof and even cold. The body language of the audience was also interesting. There were lots of crossed arms and legs at several points, possibly signaling that the audience was not “feeling” the candidates’ arguments.
That brings me to my next points about undecided voters and the goals that each candidate had going into the debate. With only twenty days left until the election, the idea of the undecided voter is probably disappearing pretty rapidly. I would argue that by this point, the majority of voters have made their decisions. After all, the limitations of presidential debates don’t really give the candidates the ability to give in-depth explanations of their arguments or policies. These debates boil down to tag-lines and sound bites. Additionally, there are not a lot of new arguments or policy announcements in the debate. Most of what was said last night are things that have already been presented or campaigned upon in stump speeches. The real goals for both candidates last night dealt with motivating their own parties. The President needed to make up lost ground from the last debate and re-energize a wounded Democratic party. He needed to convince voters that lost interest and motivation in his campaign after the last debate to reconsider. I think the real goal was not to persuade “undecided” voters, but to convince his own base to actually come out and vote for him. As for Romney, he needed to keep his momentum going. He also needed to unify his base. The Republican primaries were contentious and there were many members of the GOP not pleased with the selection of Romney. His goal was to then give Republicans a candidate the felt comfortable voting for and convince them to come out and vote for him instead of simply abstaining.
I think that both candidates met these goals. Obama was much more aggressive than in the first debate. He made offensive arguments, defended the progress made during his administration, and really challenged Romney’s record (i.e. The 47% comments and Romney’s “flip-flopping”). For his part, Romney did not let the President off the hook easily. There was more clash within this debate ( particularly within the energy independence question and the Libya question). He kept a consistent message and was able to distinguish himself from President George W. Bush in a way that wouldn’t alienate members of his party.
With these things said, I think that Obama won the debate (by a slim margin). Part of his victory lies within the fact that this debate was not nearly as much of a face-crush as the last. Additionally, he successfully made up the most ground and met what were probably the larger and more challenging goals.
If you missed the debate, this website has the links to both the full transcript and video; as well as the schedule for the upcoming final debate.
As always, happy debating!