Obama vs. Romney Debate Scorecard: October 3, 2012

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 3, 2012 – 11:34 PM

President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney squared off in their first debate tonight. This debate is an easy one to call: Romney won in a landslide, while Obama appeared flatfooted, tired, and somewhat detached.

As a result, the president’s poor performance will almost inevitably change the existing media narrative from “Romney, the inevitable loser” to “Will Obama blow his lead?”

Below, you’ll find 11 brief takeaways from tonight’s debate. My focus here is on image and delivery; before you dismiss such an analysis as shallow for not focusing on content, it’s important to realize that undecided and low-information voters consistently use such measurements to make their voting decisions.

Photo Credit: Michael Reynolds of Getty Images

Here are 11 takeaways from tonight:

  1. 1. Romney looked prosecutorial; Obama looked professorial.
  2. 2. Romney exhibited strong energy without appearing overly aggressive; Obama bordered on soporific, as if this was just another daily briefing.
  3. 3. Romney played offense; Obama remained on defense through much of the night.
  4. 4. Romney looked Obama in the eye during attacks; Obama addressed the camera—when he wasn’t looking nowhere in particular instead.
  5. 5. Romney spoke in a confident and fluid style; Obama’s speech was cluttered with dozens (if not hundreds) of distracting “uhhhs” and “ummms.”
  6. 6. Romney delivered his messages with clarity, such as when he repeatedly said, “I will not raise taxes on middle class families.” Obama buried his messages within longwinded answers, reducing their impact.
  7. 7. Romney looked attentive but confident in the split screen “reaction” shots; Obama looked more conciliatory and agreeable, even saying “I’m sorry” at one point.
  8. 8. Romney wore a red tie with dark stripes that “popped” on the screen; Obama wore a solid royal blue tie that blended in with the purple background and reinforced a sense of fatigue.
  9. 9. Romney appeared more empathetic and understanding of the problems of middle class Americans; Obama prioritized information over personal connection, even saying, “we have some data.”
  10. 10. Romney opened strong; Obama squandered his opening by congratulating his wife on their anniversary for the first 20 seconds. (Incidentally, when did this become a pro forma part of high-profile political events?)
  11. 11. Romney used politically potent buzzwords like “Solyndra” and “ObamaCare;” Obama failed to use politically potent phrases such as “George W. Bush,” “RomneyCare,” “Bain,” or “47 percent.”

Final Analysis

It’s important to point out that as flat as President Obama was tonight, he didn’t have a particularly “bad” single moment; nor did Mitt Romney have a strong one-liner that will become a memorable debate moment.

And President Obama did do a few things right. He made some important points, such as when he repeatedly hectored Mr. Romney for failing to release a more specific economic plan. But debates aren’t solely about delivering quality content. At least equally as important, candidates have to connect on a personal level with viewers—particularly undecided and low-information voters—and Romney did a much more effective job of that tonight.

Still, don’t mistake this analysis for a prediction of what’s going to happen in November. The two presidential candidates will debate two more times this month, and a strong showing by President Obama and/or a weak showing by Mitt Romney will inevitably change the media narrative yet again.

Tonight’s Grades: Governor Mitt Romney A; President Barack Obama: C

What do you think? Please cast your vote for who won tonight’s debate below, and please leave any additional thoughts in the comments section below.

Who Do You Think Won Tonight's Debate?

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Comments (19)

  1. By Jane Jordan-Meier:

    Completely agree with your analysis Brad. Spot-on as we Aussies say!

    I think the advice that Obama was given – “to have a conversation” was the wrong strategy. Clearly Romney came put as the challenger, and looked it.

    To me, the key word is surprise. Surprised at Romney’s performance and how he showed-up (much more effective than I had imagined)and surprise at poorly the President did. And while nice, surprised that the President said “Happy Anniversary”to Michelle, as the very first thing he said. Perhaps the lesson is that you do not hold debates on your anniversary!! But more seriously, the bigger issue is not to surround yourself with sycophants.

    I think that we will see a very different president next time.

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    Thank you for your comment, Jane! I agree with you completely that a different President Obama will likely show up next time. He’s regarded as a deeply competitive person, so I’d be surprised if that spark isn’t back in his eye next time. He’s lucky he gets two more shots.

  3. By More Reaction to the First Presidential Debate | Hotspyer – Breaking News from around the web:

    […] Brad Phillips: “This debate is an easy one to call: Romney won in a landslide, while Obama appeared flatfooted, tired, and somewhat detached.” Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire Tweet This Post Posted in Breaking News Tags: Debate, first, more, Presidential, Reaction « The first 2012 presidential debate: President Obama vs. Mr. 47%, #1 You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. […]

  4. By Alvin:

    Excellent review.

    Thanks for putting into words what many of us were thinking.

    I also appreciate you giving us a word of the day – soporific.

    I really enjoy your posts and often share them with my students.

  5. By More Reaction to the First Presidential Debate | News 47News 47:

    […] Brad Phillips: “This debate is an easy one to call: Romney won in a landslide, while Obama appeared flatfooted, tired, and somewhat detached.” […]

  6. By Rachel:

    I agree with your comments and was looking forward to seeing them this morning. One thought that I had was though Governor Romney appeared confident on the split screen, there were times that I thought that he looked smug and was maybe smirking a little. For the most part I thought he performance was excellent, but maybe he shouldn’t look quite so much like the cat that had swallowed the canary.

  7. By Obama loses the debate: but will it change the election result? | The Blue Dog Blog:

    […] disposal, came across as more knowledgeable and (shockingly) was more likeable.  It was, as one pundit put it, “an easy one to call: Romney won in a landslide, while Obama appeared flatfooted, tired, […]

  8. By Becca:

    Agree with your analysis 100 percent. I do understand that President Obama has a lot on his plate right now, and that’s what a lot of analysts are pointing to for reason behind how tired and out of it he seemed, but these debates are pivotal as we saw last night. Romney was convincing in all aspects of his performance, and this was a big step in the right direction as the election draws near.

    I always appreciate your fact-driven, unbiased analyses. Thanks for posting!

  9. By Brad Phillips:

    Thank you, Becca!

    I really do try to keep these things nonpartisan. If I consistently swing to one side, few people are going to believe my analyses. Last night seemed like an easy one to judge – the close ones are much tougher to grade.

    I appreciate that you read the blog and took the time to comment.

  10. By Amy S:

    Agree with your comments – but I actually liked BO’s tie…

  11. By Brad Phillips:


    Funny – you’re the second person to disagree with my tie assessment. My beef was that it faded into the background, providing him with no color contrast. I’d love to hear what fashion experts have to say about this!

    Thanks for reading,

  12. By MJ:

    I think the ties had more to do with Republican (red) and Dem (blue). As for the debate, I wasn’t surprised about Mitt’s performance. That’s who he is. He’s prepared, he’s serious, he’s a workhorse and most of all what came through to me was that he cares…and his performance was indicative of this…he’s taking this seriously. He knew this was going to be a chance for all of America to see him unfiltered (without media to tell people who he is, and he crushed it- and we know this by looking at all the focus groups. I also noticed at the beginning when they were introduced, it looked as though Mitt was a bit teary-eyed. I thought both were very cordial and I liked that and also liked that Jim Lehrer let them go and explain themselves. I wasn’t surprised how poor the President performed, he has a great ability to give rousing speeches, but when speaking in this type of setting there was a clear difference and he usually does use a lot of “uhs” and “ums” when he’s not speaking with conviction. The one part I was surprised was his closing remarks, the one chance he had to give a rousing rehearsed “Obama-like” conclusion and he totally whiffed…it was so weak. I have no doubt he’ll be better prepared for the remaining debates. On a personal note, I was very grateful to see substance discussed in this debate, very big issues were discussed and not reduced to attacks (which seems to be what the media wants-blood in the water). I don’t expect that will be the case next time.

  13. By Tommy Gilchrist:

    Interesting read. I was watching with some fascination from this side of the pond (2am start, ugh!) and thought that Mitt Romney came across ‘presidentially’ and that Barack Obama had none of his 2008 fight about him: with the possible exception of the President’s barbed comment about Romney’s difficulties in sitting down on Day 1 with Democrats at the same time as trying to dismantle Obamacare.

    I’m going to be following from a British perspective on my blog: have a look at my thoughts ahead of last night’s debate: @tommygilchrist: Change we (still) believe in? http://t.co/keNP1iqF

  14. By Dana Haynes:

    Your comments were fair,but I take issue with one. I see no reason for Romney to release a specific economic plan in a debate. It would be handing the opposition answers to the economic problems which have not been addressed.

    I guess I have another comment, Romney looked Presidential, Obama looked Professional.Romney smiled, Obama smirked!

  15. By Just because you CAN, doesn't mean you SHOULD! | Spot-On:

    […] even smarter than me on this topic (yes, it’s possible), I encourage you to check out this post by Brad Phillips (aka Mr. Media Training) or the story on the errant tweet sent by a Kitchen Aid […]

  16. By POLITICAL WIRE’S HEADLINES – 10/5 « Accomack County Democrats:

    […] Brad Phillips: “This debate is an easy one to call: Romney won in a landslide, while Obama appeared flatfooted, tired, and somewhat detached.” […]

  17. By nyahumaneridah:

    Romney displayed great personality, he was composed with good demeanour. But he was too academical with unworkable theories and policies which are neither here nor there. He mesmerized us with his academic prowess. His theories are applicable in running business but not governing a country. He was talking hot air and the viewers fell for it, we were slept off our feet.
    Obama was nervous but pegging his plans to reality of life, plans that are doable.

  18. By Andrew:

    It’s interesting to hear all the comments about how the debate looked because I was driving and listened to it on the radio. And while this wasn’t as clear a dichotomy as the Nixon/Kennedy split…I didn’t think as highly of Romney’s performance or as critical of Obama’s without the visual.

    On the radio they both sounded like petulant children arguing over the rules of a school yard game. And worse was that the moderator did nothing to keep the candidate on time or on point. It was clear that Romney had his talking points and it didn’t matter the question, he pivoted to his talking points and had great sound bites. As you said, Obama’s answers were not tight enough to be memorable and he just seemed to ramble at times.

    On the radio, Romney still won…but i wouldn’t have thought it as damaging to the President as it turned out to be.

  19. By John Boyle:

    I don’t know if anyone else picked up on Romney’s hair? Usually coifed as in molded, debate night it was a little mussed like everyman. He didnt look so scripted, statuesque and perfect. His command came through a falible man and it worked. I know mussing the hair some consultant got 25k for!!! ha ha ha…..

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