Television is a winner in US presidential election


ANYONE IN these parts who stayed up late last Wednesday week to watch the first Obama v Romney debate was well rewarded for the effort. They may be able to tell their grandchildren that they caught the defining moment of the 2012 US presidential election live, writes NOEL WHELAN

Mitt Romney did not just beat Barack Obama in the October 3rd debate, he trounced him. Obama appeared detached, resentful, dismissive. The great orator failed to communicate a defence of his first term and came across instead as a tired, cosseted president offended that anyone would dare to contest his achievements to date or the merits of his plans.

By comparison, Romney was at ease with himself, with the format and with confronting the president directly. When voters got their first unmediated look at the Republican challenger, he proved to be anything other than a reactionary incompetent, as Democratic advertising and media commentary had sought to characterise him.

Former Clinton campaign manager James Carville caught the consequences on CNN within minutes of the final bell. Obama, he said, seemed like he just didn’t want to be there. Sitting beside Carville, David Gergen, former adviser to Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, was equally devastating.

The prompt verdict of the pundits and the initial dialling groups that Obama had lost and lost big was confirmed in the post-debate nationwide polls. In many of them Romney went into the lead for the first time since before the conventions. In key swing states the Republican’s improvement was less dramatic but was significant nonetheless. The first debate proved a circuit-breaker on an Obama surge and it is Romney who now has crucial mid-October momentum – when it matters most.

The debates in this election played big on social media and micro-blogs. About 10.3 million tweets were posted during the 90 minutes of the first Obama-Romney debate. The highest volume of tweets focused on relatively trivial debate points and presentation issues. During and after the debate, tweets about Big Bird dominated.

When it came to Thursday night’s vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, the tweets peaked at a point where the two candidates, both of Irish American heritage, explained to the moderator what malarkey meant.

Joe Biden’s constant smile (opponents on Twitter called it a smirk) and his tendency to interrupt were among the hot topics. Overall Biden held his own, which will come as a relief to the embattled Democrats. Ryan, too, passed his first vice-presidential test.

It is worth noting, however, that all the key events of the campaign are happening in the medium of television. If anything, this and the previous presidential election mark a reassertion of television as the primary theatre of US politics.

Almost 70 million people watched the first Obama v Romney face-off, the overwhelming majority of them on a television set, or at least a television channel. Meanwhile both sides are engaged in record levels of television advertising, much of it localised.

Television companies will benefit most from absorbing the $1 billion the campaigns combined are expected to spend on the presidential race alone. They are already talking in the key swing states of advertising fatigue and the possibility that saturation is dulling the impact.

Both the presidential and vice-presidential debates have been events of substance. There were rigorous exchanges on the detail of the most significant issues facing America: avoiding a double-dip recession; the employment crisis; the deficit; and the cost of healthcare. The Biden-Ryan debate also included significant exchanges on Afghanistan.

With the vice-presidential debate between Biden and Ryan having been widely judged a draw or a slight win for Ryan, the second Obama-Romney bout on Tuesday night has assumed even more significance.

Obama is now on the back foot. He is like a favourite in the last stages of a soccer World Cup defeated in the opening rounds in the group. The next match could determine the outcome. His task is complicated, however, because the outcome will be determined not just by how he scores on the issues but also by how he chooses to tackle his opponent.

The president risks criticism for whichever approach he takes. If he goes on the attack, he will be seen as aggressive and rude, even desperate. If he doesn’t go for Romney, at least to some extent, Obama will appear weak, detached, even uninterested. The format for Tuesday’s debate is akin to a town hall meeting, and the topic is primarily foreign affairs. Until recent weeks both content and format might have been expected to favour Obama, but after Romney’s assured performance in the first debate and the horrific events at the US embassy in Libya, expectations have had to be adjusted.

Romney’s task on Tuesday will be to show that his performance on October 3rd was not just a “Nick Clegg moment” akin to the hype about the British Liberal Democrats leader after he had a good first debate in the last general election there. Romney will need to be able to adapt to whatever tactic Obama adopts. As the non-incumbent with a debate win under his belt, he is freer to go directly at Obama again.

Obama went into the last debate with a lead of between three and five percentage points in the national polls, but that has now dissipated. The lead he holds in bellwether states such as Ohio is also endangered. Tuesday night matters so much for American voters – it is more than just great political entertainment.

Those watching from afar have the luxury of enjoying the drama.

The only decision we have to make is whether to set the digital recorder for 2am Wednesday or bear the sleep deprivation for the added thrill of watching the second Obama v Romney playoff live.

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