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No-bama Drama: Putting the Denver Debate in Historical Context

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960.

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960. Credit: National Park Service. PD.

On Sunday, October 14, a special edition of ABC’s This Week, produced with the Miller Center, focused on the question, "Do presidential debates change elections?" Today’s guest post provides a scholarly response to the question.  

            Traveling for a lecture trip on the night of Election 2012’s first presidential debate, I wasn’t among the nearly 70 million viewers of the event.  But as I raced through the Charlotte airport, I glimpsed a gaggle of fellow travelers gathered around a restaurant television.  Pausing for a few minutes, I noticed that President Obama looked uncharacteristically uncomfortable, with his eyes turned downward toward the podium, while on the split screen Governor Romney animatedly presented his case.  Little did I realize that my instant analysis of the debate’s image would become the accepted postmortem.  Whereas the president had earned the moniker “No Drama Obama” for his unflappable campaign persona in 2008, four years later opponents and supporters alike concluded that he was missing in action on the Denver stage: No Obama had become the drama.

            It remains to be seen whether that lackluster performance will contribute to his loss of a second term, but the odds in his favor have lowered, along with his standing in the polls, since his Rocky Mountain breakdown.  In 2008 the young senator had been compared favorably with John F. Kennedy and had received endorsements from both JFK’s daughter Caroline and his brother Teddy.  For the first debate in 2012’s contest, Obama could have used the support of parents like Rose and Joe Kennedy.  Jack’s devoutly Catholic mother prayed the entire day of Jack’s first presidential debate in hopes that her intercessions would boost her son over Richard Nixon, the more experienced debater.  She was thrilled when her prayers were answered!  After his victorious performance, JFK phoned his father who gave him a rave review.  Jack turned to his alter-ego, Ted Sorensen, and explained, “If I had slipped and fallen flat on the floor, my dad would have said, ‘The way you picked yourself up was terrific!’”

The Perils of Life Above the Fray

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on stage at the first presidential debate. October 4, 2012.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on stage at the first presidential debate. October 4, 2012. Photo courtesy of Voice of America, PD.

Today’s post by Tony Lucadamo inaugurates a new partnership between Riding the Tiger and the Virginia Policy Review.

In watching CNN’s documentary, “Obama Revealed: The Man, The President,” one word continually recurred throughout: cool. On the program, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks about how cool the President is under pressure. Secretary of State Clinton discusses how cool her former adversary was in the run-up to Bin Laden’s assassination.

Yet, over the course of the program the word takes on a new connotation. Is the President perhaps, too cool? Has he grown overly aloof in his first term in office? Is he too professorial for his own good? Perhaps there is no longer a place for great mediators in the rough and tumble of today’s political environment.

Certainly, that was not the case four years ago. Lofty rhetoric shot then-Senator Obama from obscurity into prominence. Once in the running, his coolness helped unseat the vaunted Clinton machine. Candidate Obama spoke of hope and change while aides readied daggers behind their collective cloaks. Conversely, Hillary Clinton waited too long to go negative. When she did, it mostly came from her husband. It thus sounded disjointed and did not connect with the electorate.

That was part of Obama’s genius in the 2008 election. In an age of adversarial politics, candidate Obama kept his reputation squeaky clean. It confounded the opposition. If they attacked him they appeared petty. When they sat still, Obama’s soaring rhetoric lifted him higher and higher in the polls.

Election of 2012: A New Gilded Age Election

Cartoon portraying U.S. President James Garfield as a farmer cutting down corruption with a scythe.

Cartoon portraying Guilded Age President James Garfield as a farmer cutting down corruption with a scythe. James Garfield Poster, Library of Congress, PD.

This post is adapted from remarks delivered at a special GAGE Colloquium on “The 2012 Presidential Election in Historical Context.”

The 1873 satirical novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, gave a name to the post-Civil War decades of free-wheeling political corruption and greed accompanied by unprecedented economic inequality. The United States is now experiencing a New Gilded Age, marked by a high degree of social and economic inequality comparable to the first Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. Indeed, several other points of comparison between the two eras exist in politics, and thus the election of 2012 can be called a New Gilded Age Election.

The degree of inequality in wealth and income now prevailing in the United States, to a greater extent than in most developed and non-authoritarian countries, needs no demonstration. Indeed, as the Census Bureau reported in September, as median income for most Americans fell in 2011 the wealth gap between the richest 20 percent and everyone else increased.

The increasing economic and social inequality has created greater political inequality, and a great gulf between the financial and corporate elite and the middle and lower classes in their exercise of voice vis-à-vis their elected representatives and in relative ability to influence government policy. In the first Gilded Age, as now, the Senate consisted of a “millionaire’s club,” and the Supreme Court devoted itself to protecting corporations and “the money power” over the public interest and ordinary citizens. Then too lobbyists for big business, industrial corporations, and special interests literally bought state legislators and Congressmen. Now big contributors to representatives’ campaigns gain “access,” they say, with the difference between access and a bought vote apparent only to those involved in the exchange of money and votes.

Like the old Gilded Age, too, this is an era of very close elections. The 2008 election proved an exception, but pollsters predict that 2012 will be very close. Polls show that most of the voters who have already decided are evenly split and that the number of undecided is far smaller than usual. Moreover, Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s selection of the far-right wing Republican Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate indicates that—at least on the Republican side—2012 is shaping up as a “battle of the bases.” Admittedly, this has been more true of the Republican-Romney campaign than that of President Obama’s. And the Republicans are not only concentrating on rallying their base, but also have acted to diminish the Democratic base.

Friday Roundup: Biden Strikes Back

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

  1. Pre-Debate Hype. The first presidential debate injected what may have been an anomalous vitality into last night’s vice-presidential debate. The RCP’s national average showed a swing of roughly 4 points (Obama -3, Romney +1), which caused commentators like Andrew Sullivan to lament and the Obama campaign to rally supporters. Both the Huffington Post and Daily Beast published articles that charged Biden with the task of settling the score.
  2. Two facts worth mentioning about the VP debate: [1] The word “CROSSTALK” appears in the debate transcript 49 times, a marked increase from last week. [2] Joe Biden spoke for a little over a minute more than Paul Ryan. What about the generational gap? Scott Conroy of RCP points out that several of the past VP debates have featured candidates with an age gap (Biden is 69, Ryan is 42, and Sarah Palin was 44). To put this into cultural context, when Paul Ryan turned 16, number one songs on the radio featured the likes of Lionel Richtie, Prince, and Genesis, for Biden, it was the Everly Bros., the Champs, and Elvis.
  3. Prior to the debate (in part because of the perceived ineffectualness of Jim Lehrer in the first presidential debate) there was an unusual focus on the VP debate moderator, Martha Raddatz. In an interview after the debate, she said that she was surprised by the number of follow-up questions she was able to ask. Josh Barro notably criticized Raddatz’ performance for failing to bring up important topics such as immigration, monetary policy, housing policy, unwinding the fiscal cliff, and for focusing too narrowly on foreign policy while neglecting China, Latin America and Europe.

Tonight’s the Night: Veeps Get Their Moment in the Campaign Spotlight

Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Commander-in-Chief's Ball in downtown Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009.

Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball in downtown Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009. Photo by Senior Airman Kathrine McDowell, USAF. PD.

This week, the Vice Presidential candidates get their moment in the campaign spotlight. The commentariate has been abuzz with how well Joe Biden must do to make up for President Barack Obama’s poor debate performance last week. Going into the debate, voter expectations of Biden’s performance are low. According to a Pew Research Center poll released yesterday, only 34 percent of registered voters think Biden would do a better job in the veep debate, compared to 40 percent who said they thought Paul Ryan would do so.  Respondents also said they held a less favorable view of Biden compared to Ryan (39 percent vs. 44 percent). But the reality is, the debate tonight is not likely to do much to change voter preferences or the election outcome. According to a new Gallup analysis of trends of the vice presidential debates since the first one in 1976, the chances the debate will have a major impact are small. In four elections in which Gallup conducted daily tracking polls (1992, 1996, 2000, and 2008), the median change in voter support following the vice presidential debate was only one percentage point each for the Republican and Democratic ticket. That said, if Ryan does well, it will certainly add momentum to Mitt Romney’s recently resuscitated campaign. If Biden does well, it may help the Obama campaign recover from setbacks in the last week. Of course the media spin on the debate is what will likely have the most influence and the duration of coverage in the news cycle could also influence how much impact the debate has. 

Even though the debate is not likely to matter in terms of changing voter preferences, we’ll still indulge your political junkie pleasures with a rundown of some of the most memorable veep debate moments.

Is There Much Difference Between the Candidates on Foreign Policy?

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

While the economy has been the foremost issue of this presidential campaign, foreign policy still matters. As I’ve argued previously, foreign policy shapes voter evaluations of the presidential candidates and ultimately influence how they will cast their ballot on the election day. Furthermore, a recent Foreign Policy Initiative poll of 1,000 randomly selected likely voters found that an overwhelming majority (97 percent) believe that readiness to be commander in chief is an important qualification for the White House.

This week, Mitt Romney sought to convey and convince voters of his ability to lead the country in foreign affairs by delivering a major foreign policy address at the Virginia Military Institute. Moreover, the address sought to provide a comprehensive critique of President Barack Obama’s foreign and national security policy and to paint a real choice between the candidates in this election. In a conference call head of the address, foreign policy advisors Richard Williamson, Alex Wong and Eliot Cohen sought to frame Romney’s foreign policy in the “bipartisan tradition of peace through strength” pursued by presidents from Harry Truman, to John Kennedy, to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Advisors attempted to frame Barack Obama as a Jimmy Carter with a weak and partisan foreign policy, a line of attack Williamson in particular has pursued for some time. However, others, such as Michael Lind  of the New America foundation, have noted the influence of the Republican tradition “in the Obama administration's cost-conscious, realist foreign policy.” So, how much difference is there between the candidates on foreign policy issues? While there are some policy differences between the candidates, there is largely a consensus between them on a big government approach to foreign policy and in support of broad executive power in this domain.

Progressivism, Conservatism and the Revival of Battle for the Soul of America in 2012

President Barack Obama delivers remarks in Osawatomie, Kansas, White House Photo, Pete Souza, 12/6/11

President Barack Obama delivers remarks in Osawatomie, Kansas, White House Photo, Pete Souza, 12/6/11. PD.

This post is adapted from remarks delivered at a special GAGE Colloquium on “The 2012 Presidential Election in Historical Context.”

While American democracy is often prosaic, from time to time it gets caught up in an ongoing battle between progressivism and conservatism. Elections, such as 1912, 1936, 1964 and 1980, ask voters to choose between profoundly different visions of the nature’s future, raising such fundamental questions about the nature of rights and the meaning of the Constitution. This election year seems to promise, or portend, another surrogate constitutional convention.  President Barack Obama and the Democrats and Mitt Romney and the Republicans have invoked and drawn inspiration from the election of 1912, the origins of the contest between Progressivism and Conservatism that has reverberated through our own political time.

            Last December, President Obama took up the mantle of Progressivism in an address delivered in Osawatomie, Kansas – the same site where in 1910 Theodore Roosevelt delivered the important “New Nationalism” speech that launched his final election battle, as the standard bearer of the Progressive Party, which he famously dubbed the Bull Moose campaign. Although TR did not win the election, the Bull Moose Campaign had the best showing of any third party before or since, garnering 27.4% of the electoral vote, and spearheaded a three-decade progressive advance against the “gilded age” Republican Party– and its “stand pat” defense of industrial capitalism – culminating in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s triumph of 1936. The Progressive Party introduced the idea of economic rights, including national health care, and promised to advance the rights of African-Americans, immigrants, and, especially women. With his December 2011 speech, Obama sought to ensure that he first term would not be judged on his record alone, but also would make clear the historic differences that divided Democrats and Republicans. A “ruthless pragmatist” during the first three years of his presidency, he now echoed TR’s Bull Moose Campaign in seeking to rediscover the message of hope and change of his 2008 campaign – and to set the tone for his re-election.

E.J. Dionne: Time to Restore the Balance Between Liberty and Communitarianism

E.J. Dionne, Jr.

E.J. Dionne, Jr.

Today, E. J. Dionne, Jr., senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for the Washington Post, spoke at the Miller Center Forum on his new book, Our Divided Political Heart. In the Progressive tradition, the thesis of the book and of Dionne’s remarks is that from the beginning, Americans have been torn between the core values of individualism and community. While we cherish liberty, individual opportunity and self-expression, we also uphold the values of community obligation and civic virtue. The ongoing efforts to balance and reconcile these values have shaped the character of the nation.

Dionne argued that the Tea Party rose from sense of spiritual crisis and fears of decline, and it was a response to the perceived and real failures of George W. Bush, not only a reaction to Barack Obama’s ascendance to the presidency. The Tea Party’s solution was to reach back to the founders and the Constitution. Dionne acknowledged that is useful to go back to the founding to figure out who we are and those on progressive side need to engage with Tea Party about this. However, Dionne’s criticized the Tea Party and conservatives in the Republican Party for jettisoning the nation’s communitarian traditions in favor of individualism and thereby breaking from their own best traditions. Dionne made the case that America is a freer society when we take care of “freedom from want” and he argued for a return to the balance between individual and community values that characterized most of American ­history.

Friday Roundup: [CROSSTALK]

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

  1. Anticipation for this Friday’s BLS Jobs Report was brewing before the debate, but now it has added an interesting twist after Mitt Romney’s successful performance. In September, the private sector added 114,000 mostly healthcare and transportation-related jobs, bringing the unemployment rate to 7.8%--the lowest it has been since President Obama took office. The BLS also revised the job reports for July and August, increasing the previous gains by a net of 86,000 jobs. The Romney campaign was quick to respond to the report, claiming that if the bureau included the number of individuals who have stopped looking for work, the rate would be at around 11%.
  2. Romney’s well-reviewed campaign performance was followed by dings from fact checkers. Here are some other interesting numbers from this week’s debate:
  • An estimated 67.2 million people tuned into the debate. (Compared to 52.4 million for the first 2008 Obama-McCain debate, and 111.3 million for the last Super Bowl.)
  • President Obama spoke for about three minutes more than Mitt Romney.
  • Debate moderator Jim Lehrer asked only six topic-distinct questions in the 90-minute debate.
  • If it is any indication of the tenor of the debate, the word “CROSSTALK” appears 26 times in the debate transcript. (CROSSTALK is when people speak over each other and what they say can’t be heard…a word we think also aptly describes much of the debate in this polarized election year.)

Romney’s Etch-A-Sketch Moment Finally Arrives

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

Last evening’s presidential debate was overly hyped as a potential turning point for Mitt Romney. He needed the debate to recover from recent gaffes and to show he’s still in the game. By nearly all press accounts, Romney won the debate and it appears that his Etch-a-Sketch moment has finally arrived. It is undeniable that Romney outperformed Obama and the primary debates likely contributed a great deal to prepping him for the mano-a-mano last night. Analysis was largely based on his ability to play offense and get the president on the defense, as well as the Republican candidate’s ability to appear presidential. His confidence and comfort in the debate format was contrasted in media accounts by President Obama’s “listlessness,” “nervousness,” and “ill-at-ease on stage.” Obama was also accused of being “rusty,” “sluggish,” for lacking Romney’s “spark, energy and precision” and for keeping it civil (many commentators wanted Obama to invoke his campaigns key attacks on Romney). By many media (especially television) accounts, the debate came down to delivery, pose and style, rather than a dissection of substance, harkening back to the first 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in which the outcome was largely decided by appearance. What can we say, we are a society jaded by Hollywood. To be fair, there were of course real journalists who went beyond the superficial to note that it was a substantive debate over the role of government.

Top Ten Tips for Watching the Debates

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960.

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960. Credit: National Park Service. PD.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s first debate is Wednesday night.  Here are ten tips for getting something out of this and their other two debates.

1. Ignore the “morning line” about how well each candidate is expected to do, what each candidate “needs to accomplish,” and so on.  All that chatter is noise in the system—it has nothing to do with anything.

2. Tune in early and watch the pre- and post-debate programming on C-Span.  Why C-Span? Before the debate, you’ll get a sense of the setting—what the scene is like, who’s in the audience, and so on.  Afterward, you can see how the candidates behave when they think the cameras are off.

3. Are the candidates you see and hear in the debate consistent with their commercials and their opponent’s commercials?  If not, disregard the commercials.

It’s the difference between a real experience and an artificial experience.  For the first and only time, we get to see the candidates live and side-by-side in three ninety-minute encounters.  Perfect?  No.  Better than what we’ve been getting? Definitely.

4. Trust your ability to size up people when evaluating the candidates. Critics of debates sometimes charge that they’re personality contests. Well, by constitutional design, the presidency is a unitary office.  Because “the executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States,” who these people are matters.

5. Evaluate what you see—body language and facial expressions—as well as what you hear.  Lawyers call it “demeanor evidence.” We seem to be hardwired to judge qualities like sincerity and trustworthiness, so why not take advantage of that ability?

Click "Read More" for the rest of the list!

Friday Round-up: Polls, Polls, Polls

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

  1. The top story of this week: polls, polls, and more polls. Romney fell behind this past week in states he must win (Ohio, Florida). He still trails nationally. Journalists confronting Romney and Ryan with the numbers received something more novel then outright optimism this week when Ryan questioned the validity of a Wisconsin Poll that showed his campaign behind in his home state. Romney’s staff has voiced similar dissent when confronted with the numbers, going so far as to say they “hope the Obama campaign” is using those numbers to strategize. Republicans are questioning the validity of the polls, claiming most pollsters are over-sampling Democrats. After dismissing the Wisconsin poll, Ryan declined to get “into all the methodologies of it.” Stay tuned for an Riding the Tiger that will get “into all the methodologies of it” in the coming weeks.
  2. Noam Scheiber of the New Republic says that Paul Ryan has been “deadly” for the Romney campaign. Setting aside Roger Simon’s political satire that has Ryan referring to Romney as “The Stench,” Ryan himself may be the variable responsible for the Romney campaign’s recent slide in the polls—then again, he may not. But both journalists reintroduce a question thought to have been settled a month and a half ago: why Ryan?
  3. Romney comparisons continued to float around this week, the latest of which is even less flattering than Carter (see Justin Peck’s post). Is Romney the new Michael Dukakis?

Will the Presidential Debates Matter?

Debate with President Gerald Ford (Foreign and Defense Issues) (October 6, 1976) Jimmy Carter

The first of three presidential debates is set for one week from today at the University of Denver (a fourth debate is scheduled between the vice presidential candidates). As we reported in last week’s Friday Roundup, the first debate will focus largely on the economy, with three of the six fifteen-minute segments dedicated to the economy, while the other three will focus on "health care," "the role of government," and "governing.” Will these debates really matter for the outcome in November? Probably not. But, at least a third of American households will tune in to root on their candidate.

As it happens, I’ve been reading a terrific new book just released this month – The Timeline of Presidential Elections by Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezien –  that delves into the elements of the presidential campaign timeline that matter for changing preferences in the aggregate vote. Using aggregate polling data, the authors document that voter intentions do change over the course of presidential campaigns. However, voter preferences are more volatile in some election years than others. Not surprisingly, party conventions play a major role in shuffling the electorate's vote choices and it is around convention time that voter preferences are the most volatile. Conventions thus do a good job of getting voter’s attention sufficiently enough to change minds. But preferences harden nearly every year following the party conventions, with fewer voters changing their minds in the fall general campaign season.

Following the conventions, the next big campaign event is usually the presidential debates. Unlike conventions, however, numerous political scientists have shown that the presidential debates do not matter and do not change voter preferences. Detailed studies of individual debates show that, at most, polls swing only one to three points in some of the more salient debates where one of the candidates out-performs the other, such as the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan (two points for Reagan, who was already in the lead); the 1988 debate between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis (one point to Bush, who was already in the lead); the 1992 debate between Bush and Bill Clinton (probably cost Bush two points); and Al Gore’s endless signing in the debate with George W. Bush (about two to three points to Bush). Of these, the only debate that could have been consequential to the election outcome was the Gore v. Bush debate.

Myth and Reality in the Life of Obama

David Maraniss, associate editor at the Washington Post and author of Barack Obama: The Story, spoke to a standing-room only crowd at the Miller Center’s Forum this morning. Maraniss explored some of the myth’s surrounding Barack Obama, the roots of who he is as a person and implications of his biography for his governing style.

Maraniss exposed two particular myths that have been exploited for political purposes. First, according to Maranniss’ research on the ground in Kenya, it was evangelical Christians that made the rise of the Obamas possible. Barack Obama, Sr. was trained in Anglican school. Furthermore, Obama Sr.’s mentor, Betty Mooney, was an evangelical Christian who was part of a faith-based literacy movement and whose grandfather was one of the founders of Texas Christian University. Muslims have nothing to with Mr. Obama’s existence.  The revelation of the family’s relationship to the evangelical Christian movement undermines the credibility of those who employ the claim that the President is a Muslim as a political scare tactic.

The story that Obama’s grandfather was tortured by the British is another myth the president himself innocently perpetrates in his own book, Dreams of My Father. There’s a sliver of possibility that it happened. However, there are no documents to prove it and Maraniss interviewed six people who said it didn’t happen.  Maraniss referred to a “sick American culture” that has exploited this myth as means to portray the president as basing policies and governance on an anti-colonialist victimhood worldview.

Friday Roundup: All about Mitt

Obama Vs Romney. File is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

In this Friday Round-up, we offer the top ten campaign stories of the week. Tell us what story you found to be an important development or would add.


  1. The biggest story of the week was the leaked video of a closed-door fundraiser with Mitt Romney posted by David Corn at Mother Jones magazine (watch the full remarks of part I here and part II here). Much of the commentary over the video centered on remarks Romney made regarding 47 percent of the electorate who believe they are victims, will vote for Obama no matter what, and don’t pay income tax, dividing the nation between moochers and makers. However, he also proclaimed that he did not believe in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, that Palestinians are “committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel,” and called the mullahs in Iran “crazed fanatics.” Meanwhile, Romney’s joke at the fundraiser that it would be easier for him to get elected president if his parents were Mexican was met with sarcasm during the candidate’s appearance on Univision this week. At least the Romney campaign got its wish of moving beyond the candidate’s failed opportunistic response to embassy attacks in the Middle East. By late in the wake, Romney attempted to take control of the spin cycle by attacking Obama on remarks he made in 1998 to demonstrate the president wants “redistribute wealth,” but the WaPo’s Glen Kessler gave Romney four Pinocchios for the truncated clip.