Great Expectations

Just as they were after the first debate between Barrack Obama and Mitt Romney, today both the social media and the mainstream media seem to be more or less in agreement. I’ve read that this time Barrack Obama won, not as comprehensively as Romney in the first debate but he certainly won. After Obama’s sluggish performance in the first debate there was a lot of attention on whether the President could turn this around and today he did just that, he was feisty, energetic, cheeky and sincere all at the same time. Romney maintained his high energy, assertive debating style from the first debate but it was less effective against a President more prepared to fight back.

This is all fairly true, there’s no doubt that Obama was more forceful than in the previous debate but I don’t think that necessarily constitutes a win, the commentary however has all been conducted through a prism of expectations and momentum. Before the first debate Romney’s campaign was languishing and he was being portrayed as an inadequate candidate so the bar he had to clear in order to impress commentators was spectacularly low. After he cleared that bar quite easily and Obama failed to clear his own enormously high set bar people started talking about the momentum being with Romney.

I find the idea of electoral momentum a very strange one, the term seems to suggest that because one event was successful, it will require a lower standard of performance in subsequent events to make them successful. I don’t believe that to be the case at all, if you give a stellar interview one day and an awkward, bumbling one the next day people will find the second interview to be awkward and bumbling, the first interview won’t factor into it. The other possible interpretation of the term is that a successful event will lead to gentler scrutiny being applied to subsequent events. This is probably a bit true, after Tony Abbott got himself booted from parliament by acting speaker Anna Burke earlier this year he was understandably going to get a pretty rough cross examination next time he fronted the media. But there was some substance to an incident like that; Obama wasn’t held to have lost the first debate on substance he was held to have lost it because he looked weak and unsure of himself. The only way that’s going to shape future outings is to cultivate an expectation that Obama will appear weak and unsure of himself.

For my money an expectation that Obama would be weak and ineffectual, and an expectation that Romney would be forthright and energetic doesn’t really predispose viewers to think Romney’s performance was better. I tend to think that it leaves viewers ready to be mildly disappointed when this mystical concept of Romney the ultimate debating machine materialises in an inevitably human form, or pleasantly surprised when Obama turns out to be more than a bumbling shadow of his former self.  In fact I think the entire debate analysis has been conducted on that basis which makes it pretty meaningless really.

Typically the opinion of expert analysts as to who won political debates has very little bearing on voter analysis as to who they think should be President or Prime Minister. I think back to Mark Latham’s 2004 debate with John Howard. Latham was funny, energetic, and forthright and engaging whilst Howard was aloof, boring and sounded rehearsed. Pundits adjudged Latham to be the winner of this debate because he had more entertaining presentation skills but in the broader scheme of the election the debate enhanced the perception that Howard was a responsible grown up whilst Latham was a bit erratic and not to be relied on.

I would argue that as he is an incumbent President, Americans know that Barrack Obama isn’t going to be some pathetic, weak, ineffectual pushover so Obama’s great victory in today’s debate didn’t really improve his electoral prospects all that much. Mitt Romney on the other hand is an unknown entity, voters are being asked to speculate how he would pan out as a President and that leaves a lot more to the imagination. Romney again came across as intelligent, engaging, assertive and empathetic so insofar as today’s debate will have any impact on the upcoming election, it will assist Mitt Romney.


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