Most Democrats watched the first presidential debate incredulously, cringing at President Obama’s performance: What happened to the inspiring, impassioned man of four years ago? The president appeared tired, disinterested, and visionless. His opponent Mitt Romney — long considered the least charismatic of the two presidential candidates — was polished, confident, and dominant.
President Obama lost the first presidential debate because he focused on policy specifics, forgetting that the majority of debate viewers are more moved by style, grace, and charisma than an explanation of mathematics or economics. To win the second presidential debate against Mitt Romney, Obama must appeal to the average American viewer who will decide the winner of the debate, and the election, on emotional impression over policy specifics. The president must mesmerize with “wow” factor, and sway viewers who don’t care to be bogged down in the details.
Obama’s first debate performance failed in part because he tailored his message to a relatively informed audience. Some commentators suggested that perhaps he had spent too much time around his inner circle of advisers over the last four years who have already, “drank the Obama punch.” Maybe the fervent democratic crowds along the campaign trail left him out of touch with the average American’s perception of the president. Whatever the case, Obama prepped for the wrong audience.
The first presidential debate drew a record 70 million viewers, double the number who viewed the president’s acceptance speech, the previously most viewed event of the campaign. Of the 35 million additional viewers of the debate, many were essentially “tuning in” for the first time this campaign —part of those were deemed “low information” viewers whose primary interests lie outside of politics and public policy. Obama needed to reach these individuals who might not have heard of Romney’s disastrous first foreign tour, who may not know whether or not they are part of the 47%, and who probably couldn’t cite the specifics of the current tax code.
Romney already knew he needed to perform for this audience. In the infamous 47% video shot at a fundraiser earlier this year, Romney told the audience that his strategy for winning over undecided voters required looking good rather than sounding good, saying: “What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10% in the center that are independent, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending on in some cases emotion — whether they like the guy or not, what he looks like.”
Romney used this strategy in the first debate, and it worked. He looked confident, relaxed, and happy to be on stage. When Obama accused him of misleading viewers about his tax proposal by not providing policy specifics, Romney went with his gut, shooting back that he would “absolutely not” support a tax cut for the wealthy. Viewers believed him because he looked believable.
In the days following the first debate, news shows picked apart every detail of Obama’s mannerisms. He smiled infrequently, and when he did, he didn’t mean it. He relaxed one of his feet at the podium — clearly, he was uncomfortable. The man took way too many notes to be convincing.
In football, teams spend hours reviewing videos of their own and opposing teams’ games to build informed strategies. In the two weeks since the first presidential debate, Obama’s team should have scrupulously reviewed clip after clip and coached the president on how to regain his “wow” factor and identify his opponent’s stylistic vulnerabilities.
If Romney is right, the election will come down to the decisions of individuals who chose candidates based upon emotional impression. Obama cannot afford to lose another debate by misreading his audience and delivering a collegial talk on policy differences. He must simplify and generalize and captivate the audience's heart, just the way he did four years ago.
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