TAKE OUR POLL: WHO DO YOU THINK THE BEST COMMUNICATOR WAS TONIGHT? CAST YOUR VOTE HERE.
Seven contenders – a mix of the likely, unlikely, and fantastical – squared off tonight in the first high-profile debate of the 2012 election series.
Other websites will review how well the candidates did tonight. But this scorecard is based on seven specific communications criteria that have accurately predicted the outcomes of every general election in the 24/7 media age, which began in 1980.
Here are tonight’s grades, in order of best to worst:
MICHELE BACHMANN (1st Place)
Who She Is: Bachmann is a Congresswoman representing Minnesota’s 6th district since 2007 and a founder of the House’s Tea Party Caucus.
How She Did: Tonight, Michele Bachmann became a star. She successfully reversed her image from one of a scary fringe figure to one of a thoughtful, articulate, and serious contender. The storyline that dismisses Bachmann and Sarah Palin as two women fighting for the same turf ends tonight. There’s a clear difference between the two: Michele Bachmann demonstrated the discipline and seriousness to win. Sarah Palin has not.
Bachmann stole the show from her very first answer, when she made news by officially announcing her candidacy for the presidency. She continued by aligning her answers to the concerns of the public and forging a deep connection with questioners in the audience, many of whom she addressed by name.
Bachmann catapulted herself to the top tier of candidates tonight, and will now become a source of national conversation. People will inevitably talk about her 23 foster kids; many will judge raising such a large family as an altruistic act; others will find it eccentric. Nonetheless, get used to hearing her name.
TIM PAWLENTY (2nd Place)
Who He Is: Pawlenty, also known as “T-Paw,” was governor of Minnesota from 2003-2011.
How He Did: Gov. Pawlenty did better in this debate than the first one. He looked affable but tough, loosened up a bit, and appeared presidential. He has a knack for delivering tough news with optimism – a trait voters have consistently rewarded since the beginning of the 24/7 media age in 1980.
He came back to his record as Minnesota record numerous times, helping to elevate his answers above rhetoric and instead educating viewers about what he did as governor.
When offered a chance to knock Romney over “ObamneyCare,” Pawlenty treaded carefully, saying, “We took a different approach in Minnesota. We didn’t use top-down government mandates.” That careful answer will help avoid the Pawlenty vs. Romney headlines he clearly doesn’t want this early in the race. He proved that he deserves to belong in the first tier tonight.
NEWT GINGRICH (3rd Place, tie)
Who He Is: Gingrich was the Speaker of the House for four years in the 1990s, and is widely associated with 1994’s successful Contract With America. His staff recently quit en masse, upset with Gingrich’s unaggressive campaign strategy.
How He Did: Mr. Gingrich had a tough week, with 16 of his staffers resigning over his campaign strategy. Despite the turmoil, Gingrich delivered an effective performance at times. A few of his answers later in the debate were delivered at a slow, emphatic tempo – a change to the rapid-fire pace of the debate which helped him stand apart and re-gain the audience’s attention.
His sound bite that “The Obama Administration is an anti-jobs, anti-business, anti-American energy, destructive force” was memorably crafted.
But his dour, unsmiling demeanor and negative language (he twice referred to our economy as a “depression”) are unlikely to play well. And his disagreement with the moderator that the U.S. is a developed country (“We’re not a developed country,” Gingrich said) was plain bizarre.
Gingrich is still talking the process language of Congress and referring to studies from think tanks. He’s still in the second tier – and in order to move up, he’ll need to abandon the negativism and use more of the soaring rhetoric successful presidential candidates employ.
RICK SANTORUM (3rd Place, tie)
Who He Is: Santorum is a former two-term Senator from Pennsylvania who was voted out of office in 2006 by an embarrassing 17-point margin.
How He Did: Mr. Santorum delivered a much stronger appearance in this debate than the last one, but still didn’t do enough to stand out from the crowd. He demonstrated his mastery of policy, but articulated that mastery an unengaging, unmemorable manner. Like other Senators who have run before (John Kerry, Al Gore, John McCain), he’s stuck in the language of Senatorial process (even President Obama suffered from that malady at the beginning of his presidential run).
In the end, he improved, but did not elevate himself from the middle of the pack to the top tier tonight.
MITT ROMNEY (5th Place)
Who He Is: Romney is a former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate widely thought to be a frontrunner for this year’s Republican nomination.
How He Did: You know a candidate had an unimpressive night when he earns his biggest applause by announcing the score of a hockey game.
It’s not that Mr. Romney had a bad night – he answered questions articulately enough, stayed on his message, and didn’t commit any gaffes. It’s just that he didn’t really announce his presence tonight, adding little to the evening’s proceedings and failing to deliver a single memorable line.
Romney still hasn’t handled deflected the “Obamneycare” issue strongly enough, and it’s likely to haunt him when his opponents finally take aim against him in future debates.
His best line of the night may have been when he scolded moderator John King for asking irrelevant questions by saying, “ We oughtta be talking about the economy and jobs, but given that the fact you’re insistent…”
His main message, which came close to the end of the night, is this: “[President Obama] has failed on job one, which was to get this economy going again. He failed on job two, which was to restrict the growth of government. And he failed in job three, which is to have a coherent and consistent foreign policy.”
HERMAN CAIN (6th Place)
Who He Is: Cain is the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and a former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
How He Did: Herman Cain, who stole the show during last debate, was drowned out by Michele Bachmann this time around. Mr. Cain is going to need to bulk up on policy issues quickly; even when asked for specifics, he’s unable to answer with anything other than platitudinous generalities.
As someone who hasn’t served as an elected office, he’s not going to have a lot of time to prove his policy bona fides. And answering a question about Muslims serving in his administration by saying he would not be willing to appoint Muslims who wanted to kill us to his administration borders on the surreal.
RON PAUL (7th Place)
Who He Is: First elected to the House of Representatives in 1976, Dr. Paul is a libertarian popular with the Ayn Rand crowd.
How He Did: Rep. Paul’s fan base is vocal, and I’m surely going to hear from them over ranking him at the bottom of the pile.
But the purpose of this blog is not to criticize the wisdom of his policy positions, but rather the manner in which he delivered them. His professorial answers about money policy are predictable, and he failed to break through the pack tonight. At moments, he looked annoyed and angry. Does he have reason to be? Perhaps. But Americans have not rewarded someone who lacks such optimism by electing him to the White House since the beginning of the 24/7 media age, and they’re unlikely to begin now.
Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? If you disagree, what elements of your favorite candidate’s communications style do you think I missed? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.