A flash poll by CNN right after the first Barack Obama-Mitt Romney debate ended found 67% of viewers believing that Romney had won, and only 25% giving the V-sign to Obama. Obama left the hall in Denver where the debate had been held minutes after the business at hand was over, while Romney hung around on stage, smiling and waving at the audience. Romney’s sons sent out exultant tweets.

US presidential debates are always fun to watch. Two men who would possibly like to tear each other limb from limb, given half a chance, being forced to be civil and respectfully antagonistic. Of course, political commentators continue to disagree on how much these debates, televised live to the American people, actually affect results. But then, people keep pointing to the one (the first of its kind) between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960.

The radio audience of that debate felt that Nixon had won, but the much larger television audience disagreed. It all came down to visual cues. One, Nixon’s five o’clock shadow. He did not shave before appearing on television in the evening, and as his television adviser revealed later, had refused make-up. As compared with the young handsome and perfectly shaved and made-up Kennedy, television audiences found him slightly sinister (Eight years later, they would change their mind and suffer the consequences). Two, he sweated. Several times during the debate, he took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow and upper lip. Kennedy won by a wafer-thin margin, just 0.16% of the popular vote.

Quite naturally, over the years, the entire discussion of a presidential debate has shifted to how the candidate came off on screen, rather than what they actually spoke. People expect to be entertained—some sharp repartee, one-liners to quote later. Ronald Reagan, perhaps, was the all-time champion of television debates. In 1980, he faced Jimmy Carter, certainly a man with a much stronger intellect and grasp of facts. Carter attacked Reagan on his shifting stances, pointing out instances of what Reagan had said and how he had voted on various issues. When Carter was finally done with the facts, Reagan merely smiled and said: “There you go again!" It got laughs across the country and left Carter non-plussed. Reagan had sidestepped the entire issue and showed up Carter as some sort of cantankerous obsessive. Not fair at all (Reagan quite probably had no logical reply to the questions his rival was asking), but then, that’s television.

When the 1984 debates rolled around, Reagan was already 73 years old. In the first face-off with Walter Mondale (who was 56), his answers to several questions seemed confused and meandering. Age quickly became an issue, and the media wondered whether Reagan had enough of his brain functioning to lead the US for four more years. But in the second debate, Reagan was prepared for the inevitable question. When asked whether he thought his age was a problem, he replied: “I will not exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience." He had turned the tables again, and Mondale later admitted that he thought that reply won Reagan the election.

Mitt Romney is certainly no Ronald Reagan. He lacks that native charm that won Reagan two terms as President to the great befuddlement of “thinking people". Romney comes across as a typical Republican candidate, healthy, well-built, handsome in a strong-jawed way, and the sort of salesman who looks straight into the eye for so long while making his pitch that you lower your gaze first. He is the audio-visual stereotype/caricature of the American CEO. Obama, on the other hand, remains boyish in appearance, and his sales pitch is more subdued—he has faith in his product, he really cares for his customer, and wants to talk it out in a reasonable manner.

Romney has a sale to make, and Obama has a customer to keep. Romney can paint any picture of the future that he wants (and he has painted many different ones), while Obama can only extrapolate from the past. The question—Are you better off than you were four years ago?—would, I suspect, get very mixed responses from the American voter. To those who say no, Obama can only reply that it would have been much worse if he had not been at the helm.

Yet, even after taking into account all the handicaps that any incumbent has, Obama still did badly in the debate. Romney exuded more energy, and he had better and easier-to-chew statistical bytes to throw at the audience. It is astonishing that Obama did not bring up any of the insensitive comments Romney has made about economically not-so-well-off Americans. He seemed to be focused on making people think through and understand the points he was making, while Romney went for a simplification that demanded no thought but could evoke an instant reaction.

After the debate, legendary Democratic Party strategist James Carville admitted: “It looked like Romney wanted to be there, and the President didn’t want to be there." Well, some people have sneered, it was after all Obama’s 20th wedding anniversary. That sort of comment is, of course, just for laughs. My bet is that Obama will come roaring right back. Few American politicians have faced tougher odds than he did to become President. He should be able to take on a rich corporate type and his sleek huckstering.

Close