US Presidential Debate: No Knock-Out – Analysis


The first US Presidential debate a fortnight ago devoted exclusively to economic and social policies was won by Mr.Mitt Romney, with 67 per cent of the sample votes polled as against only 25 per cent for President Barack Obama. Only eight per cent of those polled were not sure who did better. It was thus an overwhelming endorsement of Mr.Romney by those polled.

The results of the second Presidential debate held on the morning of October 17 (Indian Standard Time) have not been overwhelming. Mr.Obama did much better and was more aggressive than he was in the first round, but despite that, he won the endorsement of only 46 per cent of those polled after the debate. Mr.Romney got only 39 per cent. Fifteen per cent of those polled were not sure who did better.

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United States

While neither candidate could cross the 50 per cent mark, there was a dramatic increase of 21 per cent in the case of Mr.Obama and a major fall of 28 per cent in the case of Mr.Romney.

The format of the second debate was different from that of the first. The first was a one-to-one debate on the economy whereas the second was a Town Hall style debate with the two candidates facing questions from a selected audience of 82 undecided voters. While the questions were largely devoted to economic and social issues, one question was also about Mr.Obama’s perceived mishandling of the incident outside the US Consulate in Benghazi in Libya on September 11, 2012, when the US Ambassador in Libya and three other US nationals were killed by a group of terrorists.

One saw a noticeable improvement in Mr.Obama’s aggression, style, body language and self-confidence in the second debate.. While Mr.Romney’s style and body language were the same as in the first, his aggression and self-confidence wilted under relentless pressure from Mr.Obama.

While Mr.Romney did not fumble even once during the first debate, he fumbled thrice in the second. He overlooked countering the allegations of Mr.Obama about the China contacts of some business companies with which he was associated. He realised this a bit late and then tried to counter it. His reply was not convincing. When talking of Obamacare, he initially said that “when Obamacare legislation is passed” and then corrected himself by saying “ it is already passed, when it is fully implemented.” On Benghazi, the question posed to Mr.Obama was why he failed to enhance security for the US mission when advance intelligence of a possible threat was available. Instead of pinning down Mr.Obama on this, Mr.Romney raised the question as to whether Mr.Obama described it as a terror attack or not. He was found to be factually incorrect.

The two debates have been between an incumbent President and his contender. An incumbent is always at a disadvantage because it becomes a comparison between the record of the incumbent and the promises of the contender. Mr.Romney kept the focus mercilessly on Mr.Obama’s inadequate record and unfulfilled promises. As in the first debate, Mr.Romney’s focus was all the time on jobs and the bad unemployment situation under Mr.Obama.

Mr.Obama’s aggression, style and self-confidence might have improved, but his colourless record in failing to improve the economy will remain the same. This made him even defensive and unconvincing while talking of his record even today. He ,therefore, focussed on undermining the confidence of the voters in the workability of Mr.Romney’s promises. In the coming days, one will know to what extent Mr.Obama succeeded in sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of the voters about Mr.Romney’s promises.

There have been no knock-outs in the two rounds. If one takes into consideration the accumulated voter impression of the two rounds, Mr.Romney would appear to have succeeded more in planting seeds of doubt in the minds of the voters regarding Mr.Obama’s economic record and promises than the other way round. It is difficult to say now whether this will be reflected in the actual voting. It continues to be a neck and neck race.

The next round to be exclusively devoted to foreign policy will be on October 23. Unless one of the candidates commits a major blunder or faux pas, one should not expect it to prove a turning point.

Jobs continue to be the most important issue in the elections. Mr.Obama will continue to play on a weak wicket. Mr.Romney is weak in his understanding of foreign policy, but strong in his comprehension of the economy. He will continue to use Mr.Obama’s unsatisfactory handling of the economy as the stick to beat Mr.Obama with during the rest of the campaign. Mr.Obama has no stick to beat Mr.Romney with.

B. Raman

B. Raman (August 14, 1936 – June 16, 2013) was Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies.

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