Friday, October 12, 2012

Maybe I shouldn't do debate assessment, cont.

If you'll forgive a bit of navel-gazing: I am nonplussed by my anomalous debate reactions.

For Democrats, the Biden-Ryan debate was plainly balm to the gaping wound in confidence ripped open by Obama's performance last week. My feelings, until I checked others' responses, were more in tune with this right-wing spin sampled on the Dish -- no doubt sincerely felt, since of course we partisans feel hostile to the opposition:

Michael Medved argues that Biden's rudeness will turn off voters:
The debate became queasy, unpleasant, uncomfortable to watch, not because Biden overpowered his opponent on substance (he emphatically did not), but because the normal, reassuring, ritualized sense of congeniality and decorum seemed altogether lacking. When TV professionals analyze the viewing audience in detail, I’d be surprised if a huge number of debate watchers didn’t tune out the broadcast in disgust or at least uneasiness after the first half hour.
Ponnuru's related point:
I think Biden’s manner is the story of the debate, and the public reaction to it will end up determining who won. I thought he was fine, at first: feisty, ready to mix it up, happy to be there, unlike President Barack Obama last week in Denver. Pretty soon, though, the yelling, the giggling, and the constant interruptions became unpleasant. He started reminding me why I don’t watch Bill O’Reilly. Ryan clearly didn’t want to do anything in response that could be construed as losing his cool, but I wonder if he didn’t go too far in the other direction by thanking Biden at the end.
I feared that Biden was making a laughing stock of himself.  It seems I projected onto undecided voters the reaction of the right, and so, in a sense, made it my own.  At the same time, as Biden shouted in an impassioned jumble about tax policy and Medicare, my anxiety about his tone and delivery may have blurred my ability to notice substantive points he was scoring.

My reaction may have been driven by all that commentary about how Obama hurt himself by looking peeved as Romney spoke. According to John Sides, though, I needn't have worried about more combative responses on the non-speaker side:
One notion was that ordinary voters would get turned off by the combat and go watch baseball. Here’s some breaking news: the kind of people who choose to watch a vice-presidential debate instead of baseball or football or a cooking show are not sensitive souls who curl up into a ball at the first sign of disagreement between politicians.  People who choose to watch political conflict can deal with it.  Those who can’t—or just aren’t interested in the first place—are watching something else.  Research by political scientists Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson shows this.
My first reaction to this was: I choose to watch political conflict, and I was put off by the theatrics.  But then I clicked through to the referenced paper, and it deals mainly with people's affinity for combat on political talk shows. And in fact I have no appetite for that.  Maybe I'm an anomaly: politically engaged, but not liking political combat.

My reaction to the veep debate was a kind of inverse of my response to the Obama-Romney debate. Through the first half, at least, I thought Obama was scoring reasonably well in what I was primed for, debunking Romney's policy frauds and dishonest attacks on administration policy -- though I was frustrated that some points went unanswered. I did think that things broke down a bit for Obama in the second half, but to nowhere near the extent of the consensus that emerged.

It seems that in one debate, I was blind to the nonverbal drama or combat, focused mainly verbal content, while in the other, uneasiness about the nonverbal combat somewhat obscured my response to content.

Sides, btw, is the chief proponent of the media-determines-public-response school:
I also found it a bit rich that media commentators wondered how the debate would “play” with voters.  The answer to that question, of course, is how it “played” with the news media.  The media supplies the interpretation of events like debates, and that helps shape how voters understand them too.  As Justin Wolfers put it:
Columnists writing about what columnists will write about the debate, and it’s turtles all the way down.
Ironically, though (to me), Sides' own close look at the longer-term fallout in voter perceptions from the Obama-Romney debate pretty much convinced me that I was wrong (at least in part) to argue that the hugely lopsided polling response was driven mainly by media hysteria.  The damage to perceptions of Obama's personal qualities seems so deep that I thought it must stem from personal perception more than from media interpretation. 

But maybe I'm wrong about that too.


  1. I had the same reaction. But another, also, in Biden's favor: his sense of history; that all Ryan's revisions couldn't slip by Biden, for Biden was there at the table. Social security, Reagan tax cuts, Medicaid and Medicare, ACA, over and over, Biden was there.

    Number one highlight for me.

  2. Why can't it be both? I think it's both. The immediate media hysteria fed into a 'Romney comeback' narrative the cable nets were poised to promote with even a whiff of smoke. But Matthews and Schultz' (and bloggers led by Sullivan) hair-on-fire immediate response to the first debate turned a sub-par Obama outing into a rout.

    It was the liberal pundit version of First Manassas, i.e. "The Great Skedaddle". It led immediately to a big Romney polling bubble that appears to have peaked last Friday - but the polling combined with pessimistic Obama coverage for a week solid would contribute to the "longer term" (it's still just been a week and a half or so) erosion in perceptions of the candidates.

    Despite the good jobs report (which was turned into a 'controversy' more than the actual good economic news) - the Sunday shows, the punditsphere, it's been a week of piling on the Obama campaign, which is a very fresh story for them compared to the last four months of #Romneyshambles.

    Look at what came of the two debates: Romney flip-flopped on 2/3rds of his campaign in the first debate, yet 'won' for being the aggressor. Biden ran Ryan up one side of Kentucky and down the other - and it's 'a tie' because Biden was smiling too much, or something. It's that the right wing refused to admit their man was pwned that created this result from the ether. (And don't overlook that Ryan did as well as he did only with his own chain of lies.)

    The lesson is that if Romney/Ryan are going to pay for the most factually-challenged campaign of my lifetime (going back to Nixon), it's the Obama campaign that will have to make them pay, the Washington Villagers sure as hell aren't going to do it.

    Here's something anecdotal: Since around the conventions, I've been using the Newseum site to track around 60 front pages from swing states every day. Not only is the Democratic ticket getting no favors, but Romney continually gets 'credit' for his Moderate Mitt statements that get positive play on the front page, even as half the time the campaign has walked back the statement within hours of the appearance.

    (The Boston Herald is far and away the most clownish right-wing flak in this regard, Tucker Carlson may as well be the managing editor.)