How To Watch a Debate

I absolutely love presidential debates. Honestly who doesn’t love them? After all of the tireless campaigning and the millions of dollars spent, it is nice to curl up on your couch, get some popcorn, and actually watch the two candidates duke it out. This coming Wednesday marks the first official debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and I couldn’t be more excited. I never know what I should be watching for though as key indicators that a candidate is winning. When there are so many facts and data being thrown around it can be extremely hard to distinguish which candidate is pulling into the lead. I recently read a fascinating article by Andy Sullivan entitled, “Obama vs. Romney: Five Things to Watch In First Presidential Debate” which simply lays out five key factors to keep your eyes peeled for on this coming Wednesday.


 The first thing that viewers should keep their eyes out for, is that Romney is on the offense while Obama is on the defense. Obama merely needs to avoid a catastrophic performance while Romney needs to deliver a breathtaking and shocking performance that will catalyze his campaign in a more positive direction. Obama is still firmly in the lead, so in this debate I truly believe that Romney needs to continually attack Obama on the economy in order to thrive. A political science professor at George Washington University summarizes this idea perfectly when he states, “Obama just wants to avoid any big mistakes. For Romney, there’s more pressure and he really needs the debate to change the dynamic of the race”.


The second thing that viewers should continue to watch for in this debate are the candidates’ eyes. Well not just the candidates’ eyes, but also their whole body language. You may be wondering why this is. Actions do speak louder than words and a candidate’s body language may have a bigger impact on their campaign than you may think. Do you remember the debates of 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush? A lot of people remember these debates, but not for the reasons that the candidates would hope for. Throughout the entire debate, Al Gore continually sighed at George W. Bush which turned voters off. George W. Bush drew negative attention to himself in the 2004 debate between himself and John Kerry when he continued to scowl whenever Kerry spoke. Body-language expert Janine Driver shares with us that, “shoulder shrugs indicate uncertainty, a wrinkled upper lip signals disgust, and eye blinking, either too much or too little, can convey stress”. Sullivan also shares that when candidates face each other head on it displays confidence. I honestly had no idea how much impact body language can have on an election, but now that I know I will definitely be keeping my eye out for it.


Don’t have time to watch the entire debate? That’s okay! Sullivan suggests that a viewer can get a sense of how the debate will play in the media by just watching the first thirty minutes of the debate very carefully. As you watch the debate on Wednesday watch and see which candidate seems to knock it out of the park in the first half hour because they will probably be the candidate who will receive more favorable news coverage. Candidates have to make their most lethal attacks and make a good foundation of their themes for the rest of the debate early on while reporters and the public are still forming their opinions on how well the candidate’s doing. Klain once said that, “while you can lose a debate at any time, you can only win it in the first 30 minutes”.

 Have you ever noticed how candidates always seem to stumble on the tiniest of details? Sullivan also suggests that viewers notice how the candidates will try to pin down their opponent in the most miniscule details in a subject where they are most vulnerable. For example Obama may delve into the fact that Romney’s tax and budget plan don’t add up or he will ask Romney to explain which tax loopholes he would close in order to lower income tax rates without adding to budget deficits. Romney might point out different specific times in Obama’s presidency when he has strayed from the truth. This Wednesday I will definitely be looking out for the candidates attacking each other with minor details.

The last topic that Sullivan wants viewers to watch out for is if Romney will throw Bush under the bus or not. This election for Romney has been about pinning the terrible turn of the economy on Obama and his policies, but many voters still place the blame on George W. Bush. Should Romney place the entire blame on Obama and not mention Bush at all or admit that Obama took on a terrible economy. I think that he should address how Obama took on the terrible economy, but he should stress how Obama continued to make the economy worse. It should be interesting to see how much Bush plays in these debates because as Brian Gardner noticed, “Until Governor Romney can show why his policies would be different from Bush’s policies, then we think it is highly unlikely that he can win”.


When I tune in for the debate this Wednesday I will definitely be keeping my eye out for these five different things, as should you. How much impact will this debate have on this race? We shall see!

–Amy Rowland

About rowlanda12

This is a blog about the 2012 presidential election. Content is generated by students in Professor Heldman's Politics 101 class. She does not necessarily endorse the views expressed here.
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