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Why That Crappy Presidential Debate Won't Change Anyone's Mind

With only a sliver of the electorate undecided on its candidate, the 2012 debates are not about persuading voters.
 
 
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This piece has been updated.

By most accounts, Wednesday night’s presidential debate was one of the worst anybody could remember. Moderator Jim Lehrer, anchor of the PBS NewsHour, seemed largely absent, President Barack Obama brought little fight to the game, and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, presented a pile of lies that were left either unchallenged or ineffectively countered.

Add to that the barrage of numbers issued by each candidate, and you have the recipe for a very boring and dispiriting debate. And it was.

This first presidential debate in a series of three (heaven help us), which took place at  the Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver, probably didn’t change many minds. Election 2012 finds a more highly polarized electorate than normal; only 6 percent or so of voters are deemed “persuadable” by pollsters, and it’s unlikely that a majority of those undecided voters were even watching the debate.

On our highly polarized political landscape, debates are fought for the amusement of media industrial complex, and not for the voters. It’s part of the media’s jobs program for campaign consultants and former consultants who become ubiquitous on television as “expert” interpreters of what viewers witnessed on the debate stage.

But the narrative of the debate that is crafted by the media could have an effect -- not on voters’ determination of their preferred candidate, but on turnout. Unless the president steps up his game in the next two debates, those “likely voters” who tend to side with him just might decide not to show up on election day, because right now the two themes taking shape in the narrative are that the president lost the debate, and, thanks to the current craze for instant fact-checking, that Romney is a big old liar.

Of those two themes, only the first one is news. Fact-checker upon fact-checker has revealed many of Romney's claims, made throughout the campaign, to be untrue, so, big whup. That's the way the news business works.

Snap polls give Romney a big win

And that’s why devices such as CNN’s “snap” poll matter. Corporate media need to make even the most boring of political events seem exciting; how else will they get viewers to tune in? So instant polls of viewers’ reaction, along with on-screen dial scores of real-time focus groups have become regular features of television debate coverage. But what if the poll sample is just plain wrong?

At the Daily Kos, the blogger who writes as The Silver Monkey took a look at the internals (PDF - page 8) of CNN’s snap poll, which found that 67 percent of those watching the debate declared Romney the winner -- the highest percentage for a single candidate in any of their snap polling of previous debates. But look behind the curtain, and one finds the poll’s respondents to be nearly all white, Southern and over 50. Non-whites were so statistically insignificant as to register as “not applicable” when the numbers were assessed by race, as were samples of respondents from other regions of the country. Do they really believe that the numbers of northeasterners who watched the debate were next to nil -- or do they have a bad poll? UPDATE: The folks at the TPM, which keeps a close watch on polls say that CNN has shared more information with them, and the make-up of the polling sample used by CNN seems to be "very much line with normal standards for randomized sampling."

In contrast, the CBS News snap pollof uncommitted voters showed 46 percent calling the debate for Romney, 32 percent calling it a tie, and 22 percent for Obama. The CNN poll did not specify its sample as uncommitted voters.

Perhaps CNN was simply seeking to counter the current right-wing conspiracy theory that nearly all national news media polls are skewed in favor of Democrats, the news media being in the tank for Obama and all.

What about the 47 percent?

Polls aside, Obama seemed to have come to the debate with a determination not to seem too combative, in the hope that Romney would be his own worst enemy. During the debates of 2008, it was often said that Obama had a judo strategy, using his opponents’ weight against them, and perhaps that’s what he hoped to effect in Denver. If he did, it failed.

Perhaps the most damning event Romney has had to respond to in this campaign is the secretly recorded video of a fundraiser, exposed by Mother Jones, in which Romney asserts that 47 percent of the American people think of themselves as victims, and expect the government to provide for them. Yet, in a debate segment of the role of government, Obama never once uttered the words “47 percent.”

While the president did raise the fact that Romney’s lie that Obama seeks to cut Medicare by $716 billion, Romney simply repeated the claim later in the debate.

Obama’s overly-cautious tack likely stemmed from the fact that national and swing-state polls show him winning, and he doesn’t want to mess that up. But Obama’s recent advances in the polls likely have something to do with his populist rhetoric on the stump, and the recent stumbles by Romney -- especially the infamous “47 percent” video. Yet he failed to use either circumstance to his advantage.

Perhaps, given the racialized character of the presidential campaign since the very beginning of primary season, Obama was concerned about coming off as the right-wing caricature of himself, otherwise known as the angry black man. But if the sliver of undecided voters that concern him heard a more forceful Obama sounding more like he’s fighting for them, I’d imagine that they might enjoy seeing that Obama.

Obama did manage to thump Romney for his absence of detail in his tax plan, which the former governor sells as cutting taxes with no impact on revenue.

“At some point, the American people have to ask themselves: Is the reason Governor Romney is keeping all these plans secret, is it because they’re going to be too good?” Obama asked. “Because middle-class families benefit too much? No.”

Obama also said that Romney’s “big, bold idea is ‘Never mind.’”

The comedian Chris rock suggested via Twitter that when, in the discusson of Romney's Medicare plan -- which Romney says won't change for people 55 and over, Obama cautioned people who are 54 or 55 to "listen up," he would have done well to also mention people who are, say, 47 -- just to get that famous number into people's consciousness.

Perhaps Obama should hire Chris Rock. 


Killing Big Bird and an ode to bipartisanship

If Obama treaded lightly for fear of alienating those not solidly in his camp, Romney’s challenge appeared to be to seem reasonable to that tiny group of suburban swing voters, while throwing some red meat to his right-wing base.

For the base, Romney promised to pull federal funding for PBS -- meaning, one assumes, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the publicly financed entity that provides the Public Broadcasting System with an ever-dwindling percentage of its budget.

PBS is a favorite bugaboo of the right, whose leaders contend that its programming is hopelessly biased to the left. (Must be all that science programming. You know how they feel about science.)

Asked what he would do to trim the deficit, Romney began with this attack on PBS, addressing his comments to the moderator, who is employed by that network.  “I’m sorry Jim; I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS,” Romney said. “I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But I'm not going to -- I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for. That's number one.”

Funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting actually accounts for around one hundredth of one percent of the federal budget. Did anybody mention that? No.

Immediately, two fake Twitter accounts emerged under the Big Bird name, with @BigBirdRomney tweeting:

@MittRomney just DM-d me. He told me if I don't shut my beak, he's going to tie me to the roof of his car. =( #Debates

And one called Silent Jim Lehrer began tweeting such gems as: "...I...so, I...guys..."

Then there was the racial dog whistle when Romney, accusing the president of lying, employed the B-word (not that one) after Obama asserted that what's known of the Romney tax plan would raise taxes on middle class people. "I’ve got five boys, Romney said. "I’m used to people saying something over and over so I’ll believe it."

It was an especially audacious claim when one considers that if this race were to be settled by a truthometer set on Wednesday's debate, Romney would lose not just big, but huge.

But Romney also felt compelled not to present himself as the "severely conservative" former governor he's been telling the right-wing base he is, so he made a big show of talking about how he passed health-care reform -- anathema to the base -- in a bipartisan manner, working with a Democratic legislature. He then blamed Obama for passing his own health-care bill without Republican votes.

Did anybody care to mention the fact that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared as his number one goal not the passage of legislation, but that of making sure Barack Obama was a one-term president? No. Not the president, not the moderator.

The best Obama had to offer was this: "I agree that the Democratic legislators in Massachusetts might have given some advice to Republicans in Congress about how to cooperate..."

Do lies matter?

To their credit, mainstream media have created a whole new sub-industry of fact-checking speeches and debates, but it obviously doesn't matter. Why else would Mitt Romney conclude that a winning strategy is to repeat lies that multiple fact-checkers have concluded as such? This, after all, is candidate whose pollster, Neil Newhouse, told reporters, "We’re not going let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

To wit, Romney's lie about Medicare cuts, which has been debunked by just about every fact-checking shop out there, was repeated by the candidate himself in the debate even after the president debunked it.

Which is not to say that Obama campaign is always pure. But when measuring pure mendacity, Romney is the clear sinner. Just look at CNN's fact-checks of the Denver debate. Of the five claims CNN fact-checked, Romney was found to untruthful in all, while Obama was found to be spinning a bit on his claim that Romney would rank Donald Trump as a small business.

This is the same CNN whose snap poll found Obama to have lost the debate by a wide margin.

In his book, The Political Brain, neuroscientist Drew Westen offered proof that voters make their decisions regarding candidates based on emotions, not facts. 

Mitt Romney and his campaign operatives have apparently decided that the easiest way to manipulate those emotions is to lie. The task for Obama, then, is to speak to those emotions without lying. To do that, he'll have to talk about values, about the story of America as he sees it, and not just a statistic-laden laundry list of policies.

Oh, yeah, and one more thing: If you want to win, you can't let the other guy walk all over you.

 

 

 

Adele M. Stan is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in covering the intersection of religion and politics. She is RH Reality Check's senior Washington correspondent.

 
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