Q & A: WKU debate coach analyzes the Second Presidential debate


Chris Joffrion, Debate Director has been providing analyze for the last three debates of the 2012 election.

College Heights Herald— Who came out on top? Did Obama “redeem” himself with this performance?

Chris Joffrion — While I think this debate was much closer than the first debate between President Obama and Governor Romney two weeks ago or the vice presidential debate last week, I do think the winner was still pretty clear. From my perspective, Obama not only “redeemed” himself after a weak showing in the first debate, he also clearly got the better of Romney this time around. I would attribute much of the president’s success last night to the format of the debate. If you will recall in my analysis of the first contest two weeks ago, I talked about the impact of the format and how the lack of audience interaction likely hampered the incumbent and benefited the challenger. I think last night we saw a format that favored the president’s style and his strengths and may have shaken Romney a bit. Obama is at his best when he can talk with people. He feeds off the audience, while Romney is at his best when he can speak directly to the camera without much direct audience interaction or interaction with the moderator for that matter, but we will talk more about the moderator in a bit. 

CHH — Do you think last Thursday’s VP debate influenced the presidential candidates coming into tonight’s debate? How so, and to what extent?

Joffrion — In all honesty, I don’t think the vice presidential debate had much influence on this week’s debate. At least not to the extent to which the first presidential debate shaped and influenced the vice-presidential contest. So what did influence last night’s debate? The first face-to-face meeting between Obama and Romney, I think, had a far greater impact than did the vice-presidential debate. The first debate was a clear and almost utter failure on the part of President Obama, but as I have said before this is not surprising. Historically, sitting presidents perform very poorly in this contest against a challenger with the lone exception of the first debate between Clinton and Dole in 1996. As I suggested in my analysis of the first debate between Obama and Romney, the Obama team was going to have to think very seriously about their strategy and game plan. I was hesitant at that point that Obama and his team would opt to continue the very detached, professorial approach to the debates, but I was hopeful that in the face of undeniable defeat that they would take a different approach to the second debate. And that is exactly what they did. To the extent to which the vice presidential debate and Biden’s performance might have been a testing ground for a more aggressive style, I guess one might say the vice presidential contest influenced Obama’s strategy last night, but I think that the decision to be a bit more aggressive was probably made even before last week’s debate. 

CHH — What would each candidate score on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being absolutely perfect and one being “totally bombed”?

Joffrion — Obama: 9 out of 10

I don’t think anyone really expected a repeat of week one from the president, but the performance offered up by Obama last night far exceeded my expectations. Perhaps I had slightly deflated expectations of Obama given his dismal showing two weeks ago, and while I don’t think Obama intentionally underperformed in his first outing, his performance last night surely shines by comparison. Obama succeeded in controlling this debate, and if you recall I said in week one that whoever can maintain control of the debate would likely be perceived as the winner. He successfully countered Romney’s answers and forced Romney to play defense most of the debate. He cited more specific support for answers and gave more substantiated reasons for indicting Romney’s statements. Examples include shutting down a Massachusetts coal plant and of course Libya and calling it an act of terror. Obama was also decidedly more assertive this week. Again, perhaps my preference for assertive/aggressive debate styles is outside the norm, but I think anyone would be hard pressed to say Obama’s performance last night was not leaps and bounds above what we saw a few weeks ago. I don’t mind a candidate who seems a little offended and even upset when responding to character attack like we saw when Obama responded to Romney’s claim that he mishandled the public response to the attacks in Libya. I want a president with an assertive and respectful backbone. Romney demonstrated his ability to be assertive and respectful in week one, and last night Obama did the same. Setting all the accolades aside, there was still some weakness in Obama’s performance. Specifically, Obama failed to provide clear, detailed responses and answers on the issue of the ever growing deficit and on the questions of energy policy and gas prices. 

 — Romney: 7 out of 10

While Obama supporters tuned in last night hoping to see anything but what they saw from their candidate two weeks ago, I think Romney supporters were conversely hoping for more of the same. In this regard, Romney failed to deliver. After the first debate, I was confused as to what the Obama game plan had been. This week it’s Romney who wins the prize for most confusing strategy. Romney appeared at odds with himself and his strategy. He wanted to be assertive and aggressive almost to the point of being a bully. Perhaps taking a page out of Joe “the Bulldog” Biden’s play book, but a somewhat stronger moderator who did a slightly better job with time limits and moving the debate forward served as a road block for Romney’s aggression. When Crowley would attempt to rein in the candidate his response was almost that of a victim. As if he was somehow being treated unfairly. So which is it, Romney? Are you the victim or the bully? You can’t be both, and neither role is viewed as particularly positive by most viewers. That said, I think Romney did provide one of the best answers of the evening. When asked to distinguish himself from George W. Bush, Romney walked a fine line that enabled him to clearly separate himself from an unpopular president without indicting or attacking the Bush administration. His answer did not paint the Bush presidency as a failure. He simply found ways to set himself apart. In the final debate next week, Romney also needs to be more careful about his comments in the closing remarks. His claim to care about 100 percent of Americans was a home run pitch for the president. Of course the president, who was sure to have the last word, was going to turn this back with a reference to the 47 percent comments made by Romney. Closing remarks are usually nothing special, but even they can serve to weaken your performance when you set your opponent up for such an easy retort. 

CHH — Thoughts about tonight’s moderator?

Joffrion — The easy answer to this question is that Candy Crowley was clearly a more effective moderator than Jim Lehrer but less effective than Martha Raddatz. However, to this point in my analysis of the debates I think I have failed to really talk about the major problem with presidential debates. We tend to direct our disappointment with a given debate at the moderator, and while that may seem fair, after all it’s not unreasonable to expect a moderator to moderate, I think a lot of that blame is misplaced. Are any of us surprised that politicians don’t answer the questions posed to them? Are any of us surprised that instead of giving answers, the candidates insert talking points? Are any of us surprised that two minutes never seems to be enough time to answer any question? Are any of us surprised that politicians vying for the presidency might choose to ignore unenforced time limits on their answers? Well, we shouldn’t be, and to a certain respect politicians are not different from you and I. Think about it. When was the last time you drove 75 mph when the speed limit was clearly posted as 60 mph? If we don’t think we are going to get caught or when the penalty is all but non-existent, we all tend to play a little loose with the rules, and that’s exactly what happens in every political debate. The Commission on Presidential Debates enjoys their de facto monopoly on debates, and as long as they continue to kowtow to the candidates, the candidates will be the real moderators of the debates. The moderator actually has very little power to moderate. There are real easy solutions to what frustrates all of us about political debates. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts, aka the Oscars, has it figured out. Just play a little light music to indicate a speaker has gone over time, and if that doesn’t work, turn the mic off. But if the CPD ever got serious about actually moderating the debates, the candidates would simply refuse to participate and find a different sponsor willing to allow them to run the show. So, don’t blame Candy or Jim. Their hands are basically tied. 

CHH — If you had the opportunity to “coach” each candidate, what would you tell them regarding their performance tonight? What would you encourage them to change?

Joffrion — I think I’ve touched on my idea of the coaching I would give the candidates in my answer above when discussing how I would score each candidate’s performance. In short, I think Romney needs to settle back into the style and demeanor we saw in the first debate. His odd mix of bully and victim is not effective, and I would suggest to the challenger that it might be time to start laying out some specifics. The vague, generalized answers work well early in campaigns, but as we approach election day, voters are going to start expecting some clear answers. To Obama, I would say, “Excellent job, Mr. President. That was an impressive turn around after a disappointing performance in round one.” This doesn’t mean there is not still room for improvement from the incumbent. In the next debate, I would suggest that Obama start pressing Romney for specifics. How does Romney plan to achieve the five points of his plan for economic growth? Utopian goals are nice and all, but Obama needs to press his opponent for a plan.