Obama (left) and Romney at the start of the debate in Denver on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Denver, Oct. 4: The unthinkable has happened in the American presidential election.
This country’s political class is in shock the morning after the first presidential debate in Denver that 67 per cent of likely voters who watched the debate have concluded that Republican Mitt Romney decisively defeated President Barack Obama.
Romney went into the debate with such low expectations that on the eve of the Denver encounter between the President and his challenger, 57 per cent of voters who were polled were certain that Obama would win this first round. Only 33 per cent thought that Romney would perform well.
That expectation was turned on its head after Obama clearly appeared defensive on the stage last night about his record during the 90 minutes when Romney was mostly on the offensive. Obama did not counter-attack: he did not challenge Romney even on factual errors that the Republican made in his criticism of Obama’s record.
At the Denver University campus, where the debate took place, students watching the presidential exchange on giant TV screens joked that Obama was fearful of his wife’s wrath that the couple had to spend their 20th wedding anniversary night sparring with the man who was trying to evict the first family from the White House.
Michelle Obama contributed to that perception when she told CNN: “I told Barack, ‘This, you know, attending a presidential debate on my 20th anniversary is probably the worst way for me to spend (it).’ I get so nervous at these debates…. I would not have chosen this.”
Unintentionally, no doubt, Romney may have rubbed salt into that sense of hurt when he congratulated the President on his wedding anniversary in his opening remarks and then added that “I am sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine — here with me” on this anniversary.
James Fallows who has previewed several presidential debates over the years for The Atlantic magazine wrote last month that “the easiest way to judge ‘victory’ in many debates is to watch (on television) with the sound turned off, so you can assess the candidates’ ease, tenseness, humour, and other traits signalled by their body language”.
By that yardstick, Obama looked annoyed quite often last night and kept looking down at the lectern instead of gazing at the camera or trying to connect with his audience of at least 60 million people as he did four years ago.
To widespread surprise, Obama did not raise the issue on which Romney is seen as most vulnerable: his contempt for Americans who have not had it good, confirmed by a secret video recording in which he says he does not care for the country’s 47 per cent who do not pay income tax because they are below the taxable income threshold.
Obama did not bring up Romney’s tax returns, which the Republican has failed to release for any extended number of years unlike his father — when he was seeking public office — and several other candidates for nationally elected posts. Even for the years that Romney has released his returns, many Americans are angry that he has used tax law loopholes to pay lower rates than ordinary working people.
Another issue that Obama was expected to bring up was Romney’s questionable association with a venture capital company — Bain Capital — which he founded. The company is accused of having profited heavily from buying up firms, breaking them up and selling them in parts, which often cost thousands of jobs.
Along the so-called spin alley, the media area just outside the debate venue with television broadcast platforms, where spin doctors from both sides attempt to put the best face on their candidates’ performance, Democrats valiantly defended Obama’s showing last night.
Although they were unconvincing, Obama’s surrogates insisted that the President had laid out a vision for his next four years in office and made an effective case for his re-election.
The truth and the key to Obama’s debate strategy may, however, lie elsewhere.
One of the Democratic Party’s most influential leaders, who has strong India connections, privately told The Telegraph last night that the President consciously chose to keep his powder dry during the first debate with Romney because the election is still five weeks away.
“The attention span of most Americans is 24 to 48 hours. There are two more such debates. We don’t want to fritter away our capital at this relatively early phase,” he confided.
Another leading Democrat pointed out that Obama was leading in every single poll in the country. “The President does not want to do anything that may change the status quo at this stage. Why upset the apple cart when the going is good for the President especially if it is marginally.”
That may have been the reason why Obama’s campaign aides spent most of last week praising Romney as a good debater and lowering expectations of the President. Obama himself told CBS that preparing for the debates “is a drag”.
Although the Democrats tried to lower expectations for their side from the first debate, still the perception of a landslide win for Romney last night was a surprise. If, indeed, the Obama camp’s strategy is what the two party leaders confided, it is one fraught with risks.
Perceptions often have a momentum in politics, especially in election campaigns that are heavily influenced by television images. The risk is that the impression of Obama as a President who has given up — like Jimmy Carter once — may become cemented among voters.
The Democrats insist privately in response, quoting statistics to show that in the last five presidential cycles, debates influenced voting patterns no more than one per cent, except in one case. Even in the one exception, the change among Americans on whom they would vote for based on debate performance was just over two per cent.
The danger next month is that if the contest continues to be as close as it is today, even a small percentage of votes can make a critical difference.