Before the recent debate between U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was barely over, media pundits by the bucketful were opining on its "winner," with most of them declaring almost immediately that Romney was clearly the "winner." This was not a left-right perception either, largely; in fact, watching the news commentators on MSNBC go ballistic on Obama's performance, one would think that Obama had just handed the election advantage to Romney by a failed performance.
Yet here we are, two days later, and the Reuters/Ipsos poll taken in the debate's aftermath shows that while Romney gained two percentage points of support to Obama's one percentage point gain, Romney's gains were almost exclusively with Republican voters while Obama scored big-time with independent voters. In other words, Romney's attempt to broaden his base failed and Obama's attempt to close the deal with undecided independents succeeded.
How can this be? How could these masterful pundits of political know-how be so wrong?
Because they don't remember squat about how to win over people through television.
Much was made by the almost exclusively male commentators about how Romney succeeded by looking straight at Obama and attacking him vigorously, with his carefully planned "zingers" and passionate style. By contrast, Obama was broadly criticized for not looking at Obama and not playing fact-checker-in-chief by refuting all of Romney's liberal distortion of the truth and of his formerly stated positions. Romney did a masterful job of crafting a story that he threw Obama's way, hoping that Obama would engage him on his own fictional terms.
And Obama didn't bite.
Instead, Obama stuck to a very specific game plan, explaining in plain language how his plans for the economy and health care work and speaking largely to the camera and not to his debate opponent. He did engage Romney's erroneous facts occasionally, but he took great care not to attack Romney personally, mostly ignoring Romney's fanciful diversions from reality and sticking to communicating the real substance of his own views. While at times he was looking down to gather his thoughts, mostly he was looking straight at us through the TV camera, with a relaxed presentation of his views.
And it worked. It worked from a few perspectives.
First off, only a fool tries to "beat" another person in a TV debate by engaging their opponent on their own terms. As in war, you don't want to fight the battle that your enemy wants to fight - you want to get your enemy to fight the battle that you want to fight. And the battle in TV debates is not in what happens on the stage, but what you have to use after you get off the stage. And by this measure, Obama was a huge winner. Effective sound bites from Obama that Romney could use in his campaign; zero. Effective sound bites from Romney that Obama could use in his campaign; a bajillion. The "big bird" meme? Priceless, and only the tip of the iceberg. On the campaign trail after the debate, Obama could hardly contain his glee with the quips that he had been handed to use with the crowds. Like Muhammad Ali fighting George Foreman in Zaire, Obama "rope-a-doped" Romney, letting him punch himself out and then coming back when it really mattered - in front of the voters - to deliver the knockout blows.
Secondly, while Obama was not his sharpest, by avoiding the confrontational style for which TV commentators were thirsting, Obama used the medium of television most effectively. In the 1960 presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, most people who listened to the debate on the radio thought that Nixon won it easily. Yet most who watched the debate thought that Kennedy did the better job, because he looked better and seemed more relaxed and engaged with the audience and with the television camera. While neither Romney nor Obama are naturals when it comes to television, Obama came in with a plan on how to use TV to his best advantage and he used it. He knows that while he's a bit stiff on TV, he comes off as pretty likable and a good explainer when he gets going in his groove. And by an large he stuck in that groove, focusing on making it clear and simple to undecided voters how Romney's math didn't add up and his did. Obama wasn't engaged with Romney because he knew that the only people who really mattered were the ones not in the room - the ones watching on TV. By contrast, Romney's performance was all about theater and directing energy at Obama. He didn't use his natural energy to project effectively to the people watching TV who weren't sold on him. And the polls show it.
Finally, Obama knew exactly who he needed to focus on in his remarks - undecided voters who hadn't been paying much attention. Looking at polls indicating relatively few undecided voters for this election - and many having already cast their ballots in early voting - most of the large audience watching the debate were already decided about who they were supporting and were watching it as a sporting match more than as a political decision tool. They weren't expecting to have their minds changed. So rather than having to unveil a "new new" Obama, Obama was just his usual self and focused on the message that undecideds needed to hear. He treated the debate as a campaign stop with a lot of independents in attendance, essentially. And statistically that seems to have worked. Chances are also that those were more female independents than male independents, given some of the crucial baseball games that were on that night. So Romney's over-macho stage presence was probably somewhat off-putting to independent women voters. And let's remember that those independent women voters are largely the fabled "soccer moms" and "security moms" who want the best for their children and grandchildren. Killing off big bird is hardly the male profile they want, especially when the cool, calm guy who offed Osama Bin Laden and gave their kids better health care is in the room.
So now we're on to debate two, which plays to Obama's strengths in foreign policy. Romney will look fairly foolish in this debate no matter what and is bound to leave a long trail of highly useful sound bites for Obama to use after the debate. Remember Gerald Ford and his Poland remarks? Think that, and worse. And in the final debate Obama gets to seal the deal. Here is where he will have to come out swinging a bit harder in the right way, knocking Romney's foolish and fictitious butt to the floor in a Presidential kind of way but concentrating mostly on the basics, connecting with the American people and reminding them that he's been out there fighting hard to protect them from fools like Romney. Not too hard.
So put this debate in the can - mission accomplished from Obama's perspective. Remember, TV is not about what TV commentators think it is, it's about what we think it is. Use the medium for the message that the medium conveys best. By that measure, Obama has little to fear.