In my active political days, I prepared Senate candidates for their debates. From that perspective I think former Gov. Mitt Romney was not only better prepared but had a much stronger presence before the camera and got his talking points across more effectively.
First, let me make an important point. While a good debate prep team can help prepare a candidate; they can’t make lemonade out of a lemon. In other words you need a quality candidate to begin with; and I think Gov. Romney displayed the skills and self-confidence that allowed him to succeed in business, running the Olympics, and as a governor. The moderate Romney who passed health care, understands the need for government regulation and doesn’t want to decrease revenue with his tax cuts was on the platform Wednesday night.
Earlier in the week I was interviewed and asked what points I would make if I were preparing the president for the debate, and I said I’d steal the line from Vice President Joe Biden that “Osama is dead, and GM is alive.” The president didn’t make any of his strong points in the debate. When coaching a candidate for a debate the team will come up with the points the candidate should make, regardless what the questions are. Romney accomplished this, Obama did not.
Second, any good debate preparation includes a very well-rehearsed closing statement. This is the final impression the voters have; and most importantly is the part of debate the candidate has complete control over. Again, Romney had a well-rehearsed, short two-minute speech; the president, very surprisingly, did not.
The recent history of challengers outperforming the incumbent president is not good for the incumbent. Most observers believe that challenger Ronald Reagan clearly outperformed incumbent Jimmy Carter in their debate and went on to win. Challenger Bill Clinton had a strong debate against President Bush 41, and went on to win. This is not a good trend for the President Obama.
The good news for the White House is that there are two more debates. While Biden versus Ryan is likely to be good theater, I don’t think it will influence the race. But the second and third presidential debates will be very important. By having a poor performance in debate one, the president increases the pressure on himself for debate two. The second debate will be a town hall format with questions from an audience consisting of undecided voters. This is a format the president has done well in; but like the first debate does require preparation. The third debate is scheduled to focus on foreign policy; and this could be a difficult topic for either candidate to make a game changer as U.S. voters are so focused on domestic policy and the economy.
The clock is ticking and in my view the first debate made the election closer, we will see what the polls show us in the coming days.
Tom Block is a public policy consultant who had a 21-year career with JP Morgan Chase where he served as head of government relations in NYC and created a Washington research product. He also created the bank’s EU Government Relations program and developed a new position as U.S. Government Policy Strategist focusing on how U.S. government policy impacts capital markets. He has an extensive government and banking background, has worked on political campaigns and as a speech writer. He is a family trustee of Bernheim Aboretum in Louisville and holds a B.A. degree in political science from American University. He and his wife make their home in Kentucky. He is a regular contributor to KyForward. Contact him at email@example.com.