Up till tonight, it was one round each.
Both candidates had proved themselves. Governor Romney had shown himself an admirable debater when the battleground was formed of facts. He had shown himself credible as the next CEO of United States of America Inc. President Obama meanwhile had delivered the debater who could stir the passions. His greatest challenge had been to overcome his alter-ego as Professor and deliver Presidential. He achieved it.
That’s not to say it’s all been bouquets. There have been brickbats too. We’ve had the snoozefest of President Obama’s comatose comments during the domestic affairs debate, and were then entertained by the binders full of blunders that opened during the Town Hall Meeting.
Now it’s the final round…
So who flourished in Florida?
Did the Sunshine State shimmer on someone’s parade?
Who was….. the strongest debater?
I’ll start by saying this wasn’t a fair fight. There’s a big difference between knowing your subject and learning your subject. I’d imagine that this was the debate Governor Romney looked forward to the least, and President Obama the most. Talking about action and fact is a strong position when things are going well. Obama generally did this. Words like we did and we are, are stronger than we should. The subject of foreign policy is high ground for Obama, and he had it all night. Romney frequently had to make his positions seem the same, but with woulda-coulda-shoulda differences. To which Obama could frequently respond, with variations like, “I am pleased that you are now endorsing our policy.”
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Obama practiced debate ju-jitsu all night — which he did very well. In response to Romney opinion about increasing the size of the Navy, Obama responded with a clever and well positioned rejoinder, “You mentioned the Navy and that we have fewer ships than we had in 1916, well Gov we also have few horses and bayonets.” It was a nice rhetorical comparison that made Romney seem outdated and misinformed.
He did it again when he compared his first foreign trips to Romney’s (which have been documented as gaffe-prone) “I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, to remind myself of the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.”
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These and other comparisons let Obama credibly claim the central question of the night. “The central question is who is going to be credible to our allies and enemies.” In debating, pitching, selling, if you can define the frame by which the decision will be made, you win.
Tonight could have gone either way, and when Governor Romney won the coin toss to go first, a subtle part of the power balance moved into his favor. When the first question turned out to be on Libya, which is currently the weakest topic for the President, the balance moved decisively into his favor. This was a chance to get his opponent on the back foot from the word go.
So what went so very wrong for the Governor?
To understand why Mitt Romney found himself so frequently on the ropes tonight, it’s necessary to look back over the past 12 months. There has indeed been a degree of the etch-a-sketch to many of his pronouncements, which in fairness, has been thrust upon him due to the necessity of initially appealing to first one electorate during the GOP primaries, and then having to broaden that appeal to a wider and more disparate national audience. The President seized upon that weakness and ripped it apart live on national television.
The first signs of trouble were concealed in the early Obama sound-bite that America needs “strong and steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership”. This would turn out to be Obama’s key message, returning to it frequently as he laid out examples of Mitt Romney’s changed positions on multiple issues.
Romney’s response was weak, but also underlies his debate strategy. Referring to himself, he stated: “Attacking me is not on the agenda.” It was an attempt to rise above the debate. It was an attempt to strike a tone of consensus. All it achieved was the waving of a rather large white flag in the face of an already charging bull.
Both candidates frequently pivoted away from the subject of Foreign Affairs and headed back into Domestic Affairs. One such pivot yielded what for me was one of the President’s finest lines: “You want to return to the 1980’s for you defence policy, the 1950’s for your social policy, and the 1920’s for your economic policy.” This line also set the President up well for the first of several pivots to the topic of women, a key demographic in the undecided electorate.
In past debates, we’ve noted that Mitt Romney favors four-point lists as a speaking tactic, where the fourth point on the list will normally be his key talking point, and during the first debate, that key talking point was Small Business.
Tonight he returned to that key talking point, but sadly the President’s team had seen it coming and the President was uncannily ready with a list of negatives about Governor Romney’s record on exactly that subject.
This was another strong element working in the President’s favor: Incredible preparation and planning concerning both his own strategy, and his opponent’s.
Governor Romney did attain the occasional moment of glory. In particular, I thought his response “America has not dictated to other nations. America has freed other nations from dictators” was both clever and stylish. Sadly though, it was his only such moment.
It was an Obama victory tonight. And a victory that pointed up the importance of not just passion, but planning and preparation.
Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.
Peter is a writer, trainer, and speaker on all aspects of Presenting. He coaches business executives in how to be at their best when on their feet. His bi-weekly blog, The Presenters’ Blog, examines core disciplines of public speaking and looks at how those disciplines are being illustrated by new stories around the world. You can follow his Twitter feed on @speak2all
A Note about bias. Neither of us can or will be voting in the US elections, but, like all humans, we have biases. We will try to look at the debates purely from a point of view of speaking, messaging and presenting, to see what the rest of us -— those that will never run for President, can learn.