What we learned from the presidential debates

October 23, 2012

The 2012 presidential debate season is in our rear view mirror. (Sad face.) 

So, what did we learn from them about President Obama, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and ourselves? (The Fix occasionally goes existential.)  After a semi-solid night of sleep -- who starts debates at 9 pm eastern time??? -- and a morning of reflection (and a Starbucks grande mocha), our lessons learned are below. What did you learn?

* Romney helped himself: Without the debates -- and, in particular, the first debate -- it's hard to imagine that Romney would be in the strong(ish) position he currently finds himself.  As we documented yesterday, Romney's rise into a dead heat in national polling began almost immediately after the first debate on Oct. 3 and has continued -- albeit it slightly slower of late -- ever since. Romney proved through the course of the three debates that he was knowledgeable, reasonable and up to the job and, in so doing, emerges from the debates bolstered.

* Obama is a fair-to-good debater: In the wake of the first debate disaster for Obama, we asked the question: Is the president just not a good debater? After all, in his three debates with John McCain in 2008, Obama had largely played it safe -- a no-risk strategy that paid dividends due to his wide lead in the race.  In the next two debates, Obama picked himself up off the political mat and put in far more solid performances -- peaking in the final debate last night with a pointed (at times too pointed) critique of Romney's alleged lack of knowledge on foreign policy and a strong and confident presentation of his own case. Obama is no debating rock star -- Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry seems to us to be the party's best debater in recent memory although Bill Clinton has a strong case to make too -- but he, to his credit, did improve with each debate this month. The question is whether peaking in the third debate is a good, bad or indifferent thing. Which leads us to....

* All debates aren't created equally: In our winners and losers rankings after the debates, we thought that Romney won the first debate while Obama (narrowly) won the second debate and (slightly less narrowly) won the final debate. And yet, we also believe that Romney benefited more from the three debates than did Obama. Why? Because the first debate mattered more -- for a few reasons. First, it came first -- and we all know that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That goes double for Romney who entered that first debate beating back questions about whether he was letting the race slip away.  Second, the first debate featured the biggest gap between the performances of the two candidates.  Romney was stellar, Obama stunk. And, third, the first debate will be the most watched of the three debates; 67 million people watched it (80 million if you include online viewing). While the ratings for the final debate aren't out yet, it's hard to imagine they would come close to that number.

* We care....we really care!: For all the talk about how politics is broken and how people are totally alienated from the goings-on in Washington, these debates -- or at least the first two -- have been the most watched of any in more than a decade. Here's a chart we built that tells just that story:

While even the 2012 debates don't come close to equaling a ratings monster like the Superbowl -- 111 million viewers for the game between the Giants and the Patriots -- they are still major moments culturally that are drawing more eyeballs than ever. 

* Moderators matter: In each of the first three debates -- two presidential, one vice presidential -- the moderator became a story in his/her own right. Whether it was for doing too much or not doing enough, the moderators became a partisan football within moments of the debate ending (or, in some cases, well before the debate ended). In retrospect, we probably shouldn't have been surprised by the emergence of the moderators; with only three actors on stage, it makes sense that each one will get a fair amount of attention. One interesting note/caveat: Bob Schieffer, the moderator of the final debate, does not appear to have become any part of the story. Which, of course, is exactly how he wanted it.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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