Analysis of media issues, politics and current events.
How does Mitt Romney win the presidential debate? The first step is knowing that, as the challenger, winning a debate isn’t actually about winning on debate fact points. In fact, presidential debates are rarely about changing public based on arguing facts. It’s how the facts are argued. Richard Nixon’s debate loss? Sweating under the lights that made him look nervous and shaky on TV. George H.W. Bush? Looking at his watch. Al Gore? Annoying sighs. We forget this because the news media treats the debates like they’re covering the Ali vs. Frasier fight; that one hard, indisputable fact will destroy an opponent. That’s rarely the case.
As much as we like to think of a presidential debate is about policy, it’s really a national fashion show of presidential gravitas for the public. The words each candidate speaks is the manner in which they strut their stuff on the political fashion runway. A candidate’s zinger (like “You are not Jack Kennedy) is just as relevant to catching the audience’s attention as fashion runway model’s snappy head turn. The real objective of both President Obama and Mitt Romney for two hours in this “strut off” is to see if you come away with the “feeling” that either could be president based on mannerism and takeaways from the candidates’ speech and reactions.
That’s why it’s important for Mitt Romney to project presidential gravitas more than give deep policy facts (sorry Mitt should have done that MUCH sooner-not going to happen in a two minute response). That means losing Romney’s chronic speaking stiffness. If you’ve seen him in earlier debates, you know it seems like every muscle, from his smile to his sphincter, is clenched every time he receives a question. That doesn’t look strong. That looks like your body is nervously saying “incoming!” There is a way to look engaged and ready for an opponent’s remarks without looking like you are in the middle of a root canal. Mitt needs to learn that by Wednesday.
If Mitt Romney can simply look like he has calm and gravitas that belongs on that stage, he will be the biggest benefactor of the first debate. That will go a long way of helping the public answer the question “could Mitt Romney really be president?” However, if he says anything the plays into 1) plutocracy, 2) a tin ear for any social or emotional component of a topic and 3) gaffes, that’s when Romney can actually lose the debate. Especially as any of those three things further bury him under his own cementing narrative.
Obama’s strategy is also not to mess up. A good strategy-as a Romney trap as I have a feeling, if Romney takes the advice from a griping GOP chorus, Romney will injure himself. What I mean is that Romney’s attacks on Obama will likely come from the staunchly held GOP notion/complaint that Obama and his policies haven’t been vetted (after four years). If they go this route, it’s a waste of time. Mostly because the president has been vetted (“cling to guns and religion,” “redistribution,” his birth certificate,” the list goes on). News organizations are bored covering them and non-partisans are tired of hearing them. And if he uses them he’s only preaching the choir that are already going to vote for him. Instead, Romney needs to start putting together an image to heal the biggest flaw his campaign has: lack of any big vision.
As much as the GOP ridicules Obama “HOPE & CHANGE” message of 2008, it was that big message. A vision that made a vote a step to a destination. On the other hand, without a big message, Mitt Romney is asking people to go on a journey where they can’t see the destination. Much less the forest from the trees in their vote. And 47% just found out, he may not even care if you go with him at all.
Somehow in this first debate, Mitt has to stop talking about Obama or small minded policy points and start helping people to see what a Mitt Romney Administration would be about. If not, those that just don’t want to simply beat Obama won’t have a passionate reason to vote for him.