WKU forensics team analyze first presidential debate


Last night’s presidential debate marked the official beginning of the campaign horse-race, and according to most political pundits, showed Republican challenger Mitt Romney was not backing down to the incumbent.

Did the debate go to Romney or Obama? What mistakes were made on either side?

The College Heights Herald asked WKU’s award-winning debate coach Chris Joffrion and Des Moines, Iowa freshman debater Becky Hall to analyze both speakers last night.

College Heights Herald: Were there any major gaffes tonight? How do you think those might affect future debates?

Chris Joffrion: No, I don’t think either candidate made any major gaffes tonight, but I think there was one undeniable gaffe made this evening by the Commission on Presidential Debates and moderator Jim Lehrer.

As Rachel Maddow of MSNBC put it after the debate, we saw this format die a slow and painful death. There was absolutely no structure and Lehrer had zero control of the debate. The first 15 minute segment lasted almost 30 minutes. I hope that we never see this free flowing format again.

Becky Hall: I didn’t like Obama’s decision to keep glancing downward. That gesture showed he was uninterested and it was, in my opinion, slightly disrespectful. I did notice, and both Romney and the president did this, that they had these awkward smirks while the other was talking or trying to refute a point. That to me was very off-putting, and I think the public caught on to that as well.

CHH: How does this debate set the stage for future debates between the two? How does this debate influence the VP debate at Centre College next week?

JOFFRION: Honestly, I’m not sure if or how this will set the stage or alter the stage for future debates. I think we saw from Romney exactly what I suggested earlier Romney needed to deliver if he had any hope surviving this debate with any hope of remaining a meaningful challenger. He pressured the president and took clear control of the debate. I expect to see more of the same from Romney (in the next debate). He is likely to see some very positive blow back and maybe even a bump in the polls as a result of tonight’s debate. In fact, early snap polls of undecided voters following the debate are strongly favoring Romney. So in terms of Romney’s performance, you can expect more of what you saw tonight.

Obama on the other hand, I’m still unsure what we will see in the next (debate). The Obama spin rooms seems to be saying, “look we are just going to have a conversation with the American people and when we talk with them they will just know we are the better choice.”

So, there is a chance we could see more of the very mellow, low key, professorial Obama that we saw tonight. However, there is also a chance that the immediate post debate spin might give way to some strategic game planning from Obama’s advisers  I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next debate we see a more aggressive Obama more willing to stand up for himself and his polices.

HALL: It’s very obvious that President Obama will have to make up some serious ground after the debate. The president won the debate in terms of content, but when you have a candidate clearly winning on presentation, that’s what the public will see and latch on to.

I feel like Obama’s not mentioning Romney’s 47 percent comments really showed he wasn’t on the attack in the debate. I don’t know if he wants to look less aggressive as the Super PAC commercials and campaign ads are painting him and that’s why he’s being more passive. But it’s obvious he needs to be more aggressive.

JOFFRION: I am certain of one thing though. Next week’s vice presidential debate will not be more of what we saw tonight. Paul Ryan is not Mitt Romney and Joe Biden is not Barak Obama. Paul Ryan is going to be challenged to defend some pretty bold claims made by Romney tonight. Specifically, Ryan is going to have to defend Romney’s claim that his economic plan will cut the national debt by $5 trillion dollars without raising taxes, and that the Massachusetts health care plan should be nationalized. I expect next week we will see the bold, and sometimes unrestrained, Biden attacking Ryan far more aggressively than what we saw from Obama tonight. Ryan will likely back peddle and down play much of what Romney said.

HALL: I feel like Ryan has an expectation set pretty high from the Republican party to be super-aggressive next week. I feel like Ryan is already a more aggressive speaker than Biden is, speaking on the presentation side of the debate.

However, that being said, I don’t really think the debate has a huge impact on those who already have an idea of who they’re voting for. These debates are really all for the undecided voters. Honestly, two minutes to clarify and boil down things are only really helpful to those people. It waters down the platforms of the candidates without any sort of media bias.

CHH: How successful would you rank each candidate on their performance on a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being completely bombing the debate and 10 being absolutely perfect)?

JOFFRION: Romney, 8.5 out of 10

Well, if I didn’t know better I would say the Romney camp got my advice on how he should handle the debate. After watching the debate I went back and re-read what I had written yesterday, and he pretty much nailed exactly what I suggested he needed to do in order to be successful in last night’s debate.

So, why only an 8.5? Let’s focus on what he did well first before we discuss the point deductions.

First, I suggested that Romney needed to find away to connect with average Americans and show that he was human, real, and in touch with the problems faced by average Americans. He excelled in this area and did so from his very first answer.

In answering Jim Lehrer’s question in the very first segment of the debate Romney humanized himself and his campaign ripping a page right out of the Obama playbook. Remember how he talked about the woman in Denver whose husband had lost 4 part time jobs in three year and they had just lost their house. She touched his arm and asked, “can you help us?”

I don’t know when exactly it happened but at some point in the recent past Mitt Romney decided to be the candidate of the middle class.We can question the truth of some of his claims, but if we accept as true everything he said last night he did an excellent job appealing to the middle class.

Second, and again this is assuming that we accept as true all of Romney’s statistics, I suggested that Romney needed to take control of the debate and pressure the president with facts and statistics. In that area you couldn’t have asked for more from Romney. He was clearly in control of the debate and was clearly on the offensive.

So, why only an 8.5? First of all he was a little too much on the offensive. Yes, that is both good and bad. Politicians must toe a very fine line when going on the offensive, and I think Romney may have come across as a bit angry last night. This can easily alienate people as it did in the Bush/Kerry debates in 2004.

Second, I would deduct a bit for honesty. Now, I am not statistical fact checker and I won’t go into detail as to when or where I think Mitt substituted some skewed statistics for the truth, but much of the post debate analysis from political pundits on both sides of the aisle acknowledges that some of his claims were a bit of a stretch.

Granted, it pales in comparison to the fabrications in Ryan’s convention speech. Third, short of killing Big Bird, I’m not sure what Romney’s plan is for anything. Romney spent a lot of time explaining what his plan doesn’t do, but still failed to tell the electorate what his plan would do. It’s like he has this utopian plan that does nothing even potential harmful. That’s easy to claim when you refuse to tell us what your plan is.

HALL: I’m giving Governor Romney 8 out of 10. He did a fantastic job of staying in control, and addressed the crowd well. However, he was at times a little more aggressive than was comfortable. Just think about how he talked over the moderator at times.

JOFFRION: I’m giving the president a 6 out of 10, and that is probably a little generous.

If Obama were one of my debaters, I would tell you he doesn’t take coaching very well. Unlike Romney’s performance, Obama’s performance illustrated none of the tactics and strategies I suggested.

Granted, I didn’t actually get to coach him so perhaps this should be seen as a criticism of Obama’s camp and those who prepped him for the debate, not Obama himself. Honestly, I’m not sure what the president’s game plan was last night, but I think his team certainly needs to reconsider their approach before the next debate.

Let’s start with areas where Obama excelled — okay, maybe not excelled but didn’t flounder. Well, he’s got the backward-step down pat.

I think Obama weathered the Romney’s barrage of attacks fairly well. Romney’s game plan was clearly to try to crack the President, and I don’t think that happened.

Regardless of if you liked the president’s demeanor in the debate or not, he certainly maintained a consistent disposition from the start. Second, Obama seemed genuine and, outside of the 3 sections of the debate focused on the economy, seemed passionate.

Unfortunately for Obama, more than half the debate focused on the economy, and I think in the minds of many viewers they had already gotten the impression that Obama was detached. Third, I doubt the president lost any stalwart supporters as a result of his performance. I know, that’s not a ringing endorsement of his performance, but it could have been worse.

George W. Bush had an equally lack luster performance in his first debate against Kerry in 2004 without any real consequences. Sometimes when you’re ahead simply not losing ground can be seen as a victory.

Now it’s time for some tough love. Let’s be honest, no one who watched the debate is going to tell you that Obama was on his A game last night, and outside of the most partisan of supporters I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone willing to say Obama won.

In fact, I was surprised by the results on the MSNBC snap poll immediately following the debate. Twenty-two percent of undecided voters thought Obama won. Really? The best I can say for the president’s performance last night is at least he survived, and there were moments when I wasn’t sure he was even going to that.

I mean there were a few split screen shots when Romney was speaking that I though Obama might actually have fallen asleep. So, where exactly did Obama come up short? I’ll start with his demeanor.

There were moments last night where I think Obama’s internal monologue was probably something to the effect of, “this is ridiculous. I am the President of the United States. Why do I have to do this? It’s my anniversary, I would rather be at home celebrating.”

Second, the backward-step only works when paired with the pivot-forward otherwise you end up looking like, well just like Obama did last night. You look like a boxer on the ropes trying to deflect as many blows as possible and hoping your opponent doesn’t land a knockout punch.

Luckily, I don’t think Romney landed any knockout punches, but he certainly got some good shots in. Obama on the other hand only landed one real blow that I recall when he accused Romney of backing away from his tax plan saying, “five weeks before the election his big bold idea is, never mind.”

Finally, let’s talk about ‘…umm…the…err…’ president’s delivery. It’s nothing new or novel to say Obama is not the smoothest and most fluid of speakers, but last night’s performance seemed unusually rough. Maybe that’s just by comparison to Romney’s slick-as-butter speaking style.Maybe it’s because Obama feeds off of audience interaction which was a no go in last night’s format where the audience was sworn to silence, or maybe Al Gore is right and it was the altitude.

But regardless of the reason, Obama’s constant stumbling and stuttering made him look far less prepared that Slick Mitt.

HALL: I’m going to give the president 7 out of 10. I felt like with his content he was overall pretty close to his competitor. That being said, simply on the basis of his actions and presentation, Obama did not score as close to Romney as he probably should have.

I’m really interested in seeing debates more centered on foreign policy. I think the president and Governor Romney will have an interesting time with that debate, and it might give President Obama some sort of edge to make up ground lost in this debate.

That being said, I also look forward to the potential for stupid things and gaffes they come up with, from both camps. Those are always so much fun to watch them make, and then watch them try to recover.