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“Foreign Policy” Debate Roundup

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on stage at the foreign policy presidential debate. October 22, 2012.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on stage at the foreign policy presidential debate. October 22, 2012. Photo by Irina Lagunina, courtesy of Voice of America, PD.

The final presidential debate, intended to be on the subject of foreign policy, was held last evening at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Below are some highlights and lowlights from the debate.

Snap polls say? According to a CNN-ORC snap poll, 48 percent of voters said President Obama won, while 40 percent said Mitt Romney did. In the CBS snap poll of uncommitted voters, 53 percent said Obama won, 24 percent said Romney did, and another 24 percent called it a tie. A Google snap poll gave Obama a ten percent advantage. However, as Nate Silver points out, Obama is not likely to get as much of a bounce because voters have more information now than they did before the first debate and because most people were watching Monday Night Football and baseball games. That being said, in such a close election, even a small bounce could help the President.

Oh, snap! When Romney repeated his previously used line that the Navy is smaller now than at any time since World War I, Obama was prepared with a sarcastic retort: “Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.” Google searches for the term “bayonets” spiked 7215% during the debate. Fact check: the U.S. Army still uses bayonets.

Didn’t take the bait. Although the first debate question raised the September 11 terrorist attacks in Libya, Romney preferred to forego the opportunity to attack President Obama’s handling of the situation. This came as a surprise to many in the commentariat who had anticipated that the issue would be rehashed once again. I personally was relieved that the candidates found other foreign policy issues to discuss, even though I was disappointed they didn’t address important issues and countries such as multilateralism, NATO, Europe, countries other than China in East Asia, and India.

Moving Beyond Benghazi Moment

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.

Tonight’s final presidential debate could come down to one topic: Libya.

Those who watched the town hall-style presidential debate on Ocotber 16 saw the preamble. The question posed was this:

This question actually comes from a brain trust of my friends at Global Telecom Supply in Mineola yesterday. We were sitting around talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans. Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?

In short, the questioner (Kerry Ladka of Mineola, NY) wanted to know who made the decision to forego additional security measures prior to the recent terrorist attack. And, as the Washington Post rightly points out, the President essentially ducked the question.

President Obama first rallied to the defense of his diplomats, going so far as to say he knew their families. Next, he refocused the subject to highlight a questionable Republican rush to accuse in the fallout.

Highlights and Lowlights from the Second Presidential Debate

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.

Last night President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney faced off in a town hall style debate with 100 undecided voters selected by Gallup. Below are some highlights and lowlights of the evening.

  1. Survey says? According to a CNN/ORC poll of registered voters, 46 percent thought Obama won, while 36 percent thought Romney won. A CBS News poll of undecided voters found 37 percent thought Obama won, while 30 percent said Romney did and 33 percent thought it was a tie. A Google Consumer Surveys poll of registered voters found 48 percent of registered voters saying Obama won, compared to 31 percent who said Romney won.
  2. The feistiness that marked the debate began before it even started when Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein and her running mate, Cheri Honkala, were arrested in a failed attempt to attend the debate. Even though the Green Party candidates will be on an estimated 85 percent of ballots this election year, the Commission on Presidential Debates sets the bar at 15 percent in the polls for third party candidates to participate.
  3. In an attempt to close the gender gap and reach out to women, Mitt Romney likely accomplished the opposite when he uttered the buzz phrase of the evening –  “Binders full of women.” Romney said:

We took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our Cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks.’ And they brought us whole binders full of women.

The phrase has given birth to memes galore. Expect to see a lot of talk show jokes and Halloween costumes in the coming days.

The (Imperfect) Value of the Debates

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.

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.        

The September 26, 1960, edition of the Washington Post did not even mention that night’s scheduled debate between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee.  The three broadcast networks’ evening news programs barely mentioned the event.

            Surprise: the audience for the first Kennedy-Nixon debate—the first debate in history between two candidates for president—was the largest for a political event in human history up to that time.  More than 60 million saw it on television and millions more heard it on the radio.  About 100 million saw or heard at least one of the four debates.

            And then . . . nothing.  No debates when President Lyndon B. Johnson ran against Arizona senator Barry Goldwater in 1964.  None when Nixon faced Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and an independent candidate, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, in 1968.  Or when Nixon ran for reelection against Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota in 1972.

            Only in 1976 did the stars align once again and debates occur.  The main reason: for the first time since 1960, both candidates—President Gerald Ford, who was trailing in the polls, and Gov. Jimmy Carter, who like all challengers wanted a stage on which he could face the incumbent as an equal—saw an advantage in debating.  Nineteen seventy-six also brought an innovation: the debate between Ford’s running mate, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, and Carter’s vice presidential nominee, Minnesota senator Walter Mondale.  Not a bad idea, considering that fourteen vice presidents—nearly one third of them—have gone on to become president.

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.

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.

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!

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.