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Actions Speak Louder: The First Debate

The first debate changed the race. What will happen next?

What was the biggest thing you noticed about the presidential debate last week? What stood out to you? What about the reaction in the media? What did you notice? Did you watch the debate, or did you rely on media coverage afterward to tell you what happened?

I was watching the debate and taking part in the Google+ Hangout organized by ABC News and Yahoo! News with Cassie Boorn and Danielle Elwood and since we were discussing the debate while it was happening, it was hard to concentrate on what the two candidates were actually saying.

While it was certainly awkward to try and discuss what they were saying while they were saying it, the hangout did give me the opportunity to watch the candidates’ actions and pay more attention to their body language than the words they said.

What I saw was very interesting; in fact, it was probably more interesting than what was being said.

When the candidates took the stage, they met as equals, with a firm handshake. They addressed each other, looked each other in the eye, and Mr. Obama apparently made a small joke as they broke and headed to their respective podiums.

As the debate went on, the two men obviously had different strategies in mind. Mr. Obama wanted to address the audience during both his two minute monologue, and during the following discussion period. He rarely looked over at Mr. Romney and tried his best to engage the audience rather than his opponent. Mr. Romney chose to address the audience during his two minutes, but shifted his focus to Mr. Obama during the discussion period.

Mr. Obama was clearly uncomfortable facing Mr. Romney directly and grew increasingly distracted as the debate wore on. Eventually, Mr. Obama seemed to realize that his initial strategy was failing, and began to try to address Mr. Romney directly, but his rhythm was off, and his responses were unfocussed and rambling. He seemed like he wanted to be anywhere other than where he was.

By the time the debate was over, when the two men met at center stage, Mr. Obama’s handshake was brief, formal, and he met Mr Romney’s eyes only briefly before they separated to greet their families as they came on stage.

It was the biggest stare-down loss since Balboa-Lang 1. Mr. Obama clearly was not ready for Mr. Romney’s physical presence.

After the debate, when I read through the transcripts, I saw just why Mr. Obama was unable to get his footing. Mr. Romney came with a plan and a message to deliver. The plan was to challenge Mr. Obama on his record and his message was that the record was one of failure. Mr. Romney was prepared with bullet point after bullet point, numbered and ready to use to present his plan to the American people. Mr. Obama clearly prepared for a more informal debate, where he could rely on his appeal to the audience, rather than a command of the facts.

The Obama campaign was clearly rattled the next day, as their best comeback for the debate debacle was to try and make Big Bird the issue.

Today, as the post debate polling data rolls in, it appears to confirm my assessment. Gallup says Romney’s win was the most convincing in history, with 72 percent of respondents giving Romney the nod, over Obama’s 20 percent. Romney’s advantage with independents was similarly strong, as they broke 70-19 in favor of Romney.

Romney’s debate performance has also moved the polls, with the Pew Research Center showing a 6 point bump for Romney, fully reflected in a 6 point drop for Obama, a 12 point swing that puts Romney in the lead among likely voters, 49 percent to 45 percent.

So what does this mean for the campaign?

Debates do not change the minds of the partisan faithful. Those committed to Obama will still vote for Obama, and those committed to Romney will still vote for Romney. But the debates do have the ability to sway independents and the undecided, and those groups are now breaking strongly for Romney.  In a close election, as this one is shaping up to be, the advantage that Romney enjoys among independents could prove to be the clincher.

On the other hand, there are three more debates, and the vice presidential debate this Thursday may not be the slam dunk most conservatives are predicting. Ryan is wildly popular with small government conservatives, which is odd given his voting record, which includes votes for TARP and the stimulus, among others. However, that popularity may not transfer to undecided voters, who may find his recipe for reduced spending unfriendly and a bit scary.

Biden, on the other hand, doesn’t scare anybody, except maybe for the Obama campaign when he goes off script.

After the vice presidential debate, there are two more presidential debates, including a Town Hall-style debate on Tuesday, Oct 16, which will play to Mr. Obama’s natural inclinations, and may reveal Mr. Romney’s difficulties in connecting to an audience. If Biden doesn’t do anything to embarrass himself, and Obama recovers during the Town Hall debate, then the final debate on Monday Oct 22, which will be in the same format as the first, may be the decision maker.

Whatever the final outcome, the first debate has certainly made this campaign a lot more interesting.

UPDATE: More confirmation that the debate had a huge effect on independent and undeclared voters … the Rasmussen poll today shows Romney leading in 11 swing states. These are states that Obama won, some of them easily, in 2008. Most likely the numbers will contract some as the debate bounce dies off, but if a single bad performance by Mr. Obama can tilt the scales this far, this election really does hang by a thread.

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