The first presidential debate: Who won?

Oct 04, 2012

Bob Kaiser:

At noon on Thursday I will moderate a discussion of last night's debate that I hope will attract comments and questions from many readers. For many years I did these discussions immediately after a debate ended--fun, but hurried and not always thoughtful. This time we thought we'd try the day after to see how a 14-hour delay affects both readers and this old commentator, who, if the truth be told, has seen every presidential debate since Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960, when I was a college freshman.

A few questions that I hope readers might answer in submissions to the chat: Did your candidate disappoint or thrill you last night? And if you are one of the small number who still doesn't have a candidate, did you see anything that swayed you? Was the debate too wonky? Did either man connect with you personally? Did either man offend you by distorting what you think of as the truth? Were you surprised by anything during the debate, either anything that was said, or the manner of either candidate?

Comments and questions on any aspect of the debate are welcome. See you at noon. (Eastern U.S. time).


Called "the Super Bowl of politics", tonight marks the first general election debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Join associate editor Robert Kaiser Thursday at Noon ET as he discusses what was said, who said it, if either candidate was helped or hurt by the debate and more.

Ask questions and submit opinions for Robert to respond to now.

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Follow @PostPolitics on Twitter

Welcome to our chat on last night's presidential debate. I will try over the next hour or so to respond to as many of your posts as I can. I will answer questions and post some comments from you withouit adding anything of my own. Judging by past experience, I won't be able to answer everyone, I'm sorry.

I've been thinking about what we saw last night, and woke up this morning remembering an appearance by Eric Fehrnstrom, spokesman for the Romney campaign on a talk show last spring. Fehrnsteom was asked then how Romney could move from the staunchly conservative positions he had taken during the GOP primaries to a more centrist stance that might appeal to general election voters. 

“Well," Fehrnstrom replied, "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” 

This is what Romney did last night on taxes and spending issues, and to good effect. You don't like a 20-percent across-the-board tax cut (which he has been offering for many months)? OK, I won't do it--I forswear any tax cut for the wealthy, or any tax cut that loses revenue for the federal government. Personally I see that as a sensible policy shift, but it was also a flip-flop so impressive it might be entered for an Olympic championship. I'm curious how conservative activists will react to it.

Obama, however, let this all pass.  I conclude that the man is constitutionally incapable of confronting political opponents bluntly. He had a game plan -- I suspect he deserves more credit for this than the talking heads have been giving him -- and he stuck to it. The plan was to offend no one if possible. This is a president who wants to be admired by the maximum possible number of people. FDR once said, "the bankers hate me and I welcome their hatred."  Can anyone imagine Barack Obama saying something like that?

On to your queries and comments.

Where were the fact checkers?

The fact-checkers are everywhere. The best of them, our Glenn Kessler, is easy to find on The Washington Post site. is easy to find too.  The NY Times has its own fact checks today.  Check them out!

Who won the first presidential debate between Obama and Romney ?

I don't think there is any definition of the word "won" that could make Obama the winner of last night's debate.  Indeed, I've been surfing this morning looking for any pundit or politician who is arguing that Obama prevailed; I found none. (If you found one, please send it in.) The polls taken last night, all imperfect to be sure, agreed that Romney won. The most interesting to me was a CBS poll of undecided voters. 46% opf them said Romeny won; 22% said Obama won; 32% said it was a tie. But I note that a majority, 54%, either picked Obama or said "tie." Romney's 46% hardly constitutes a blowout. That's lower than the vote total he's been getting in national polls lately.

Final point: "Winning" debates does not mean winning the election. I have a vivid memory of the 2004 Bush-Kerry debates. Kerry won all three, easily. In the first one he humiliated Bush, I thought. That didn't help him much in November, did it? 

Do you think the President knowing that he is winning in the polls wanted to be safe and not attack Romney, while Romney knowing he was down in the polls was more aggressive?

Yes indeed.

Is it even possible, in the age of Grover Norquist's No Tax Pledge, that Mitt Romney could successfully reach across the aisle to find an ounce of common ground with a member of the Democratic Party? How is pledge obstinance on any single issue a foundation for compromise?

This is a very good question. Romney last night acted as though Washington in the second decade of the 21st Century was somehow comparable to Beacon Hill in Boston in the '90s when he was governor. This is like comparing this year's Washington Nationals to the hapless Washington Senators I cheered on in the 1950s. I have just finished a new book about Congress, out next year, which focuses in part on partisan warfare, the key aspect of our politics since the '90s.  Romney is pretending it doesn't exist.

What is Mitt Romneys Plans for the Country? He seems really vague. Is it all a Secret?

Romney's answers last night may have actually aggravated this problem. If he isn't for a 20-percent tax cut, what IS he for? If all tax changes have to be "revenue neutral"--that is, have to bring in as much revenue as the government is now collecting--then how can they be economically significant?  If it all depends on "tax reform," what reforms does he propose? All this does indeed remain a secret--and an opening for Obama and the Democrats.

Why didn't Obama dispute the Green Jobs information that Romney said, i.e. 90 billion spent and mostly to Obama's campaign contributors and the fact that most of those companies are now out of business.?

I am going to avoid "why didn't Obama..." questions like a plague! I've offered my thumb-nail psychoanalysis of the president already. Debate coaches everywhere cringed last night at his failure to call out Romney on this and many other specifics. 

but Obama got his butt handed to him last night. I think for two reasons: His team was not expecting Romney to be aggressive and they obviously not only didn't prepare for it (which they should have), and Obama wasn't able to change his tactics on the fly (which Clinton would have been a master of). Also, I think he was a bit handicapped by his own personality - measured, logical, and professorial is not going to work in this debate with Romney. Let's just hope this is a big lesson learned for the Obama team and the next two debates are better.

Thanks for this.  Is it really conceivable that they made no preparations for an aggressive Romney? John kerry, a talented debater, played Romney in rehearsals for OBama. I can't believe he didn't show some aggression. But I don't know of course.

President Obama kept pressing Governor Romney for specifics however I don't recall many specifics other than "Hope and Change" from the President when he was first running for office. If my recollection is accurate, why did Governor Romney not point out this inconsistency?

Nor can I speculate on why Romney did nor didn't do something last night. But thanks for posting.

Obama was not prepared well. Obama though they were going to debate the stated policies of each of them and was knocked off his game early on when Romney disavowed his own tax plan. It's hard to say what's in someone elses plan and that is what Obama ended up doing while Romney simply denied and rejected all of the less popular parts of his previous positions. What Obama could have done is explicitly draw attention to this tactic. Also the sheer energy difference was a problem. If Obama practiced against Kerry,, that was a mistake also.


In my personal opinion, I don't think either candidate "won" last night's debate. In terms of issues, neither side said anything that we haven't heard already; in fact, they both seemed to dig deeper into their own camps (especially Romney, who renewed his pledge not to raise any taxes on anyone, especially the rich). In terms of persona, I found the president to be somewhat weary, and Romney I found over-combative to the point of disrespect (e.g., continually interrupting and in some cases usurping Jim Lehrer, the moderator). Jim Lehrer, too, whom I have always respected and admired as a newsman and a moderator, didn't strike me as having control of the room, either. All too often he let the candidates walk all over him, and only late in the game did Lehrer finally regain his footing.


to me Obama seemed more world-weary or tired than Romney did, that is, being in the office already appeared a disadvantage as it seemed to weigh on him while Romney seemed buoyant, excited. Also Romney came across as quite pragmatic and not so ideological, which I also see as an advantage. I say these things as a Dem, unfortunately. But I also think incumbents can be at their weakest in first debates, like Reagan/Mondale; and then adjust and bounce back, using the incumbency to advantage in later ones.

Thanks. Here's a link to a good Post story this morning that points out the historical fact that incumbents tend to lose debates. Reagan's first-debate fiasco was memorable, but not as memorable as his comeback triumph in round two, when he promised not to "make an issue of Mr. Mondale's youth."

Romney needed to be called more on his untruths. Many of these where easily proven when looking and knowing perhaps about the actual pre-debate Romney policies and the record both of the Republican Party platform and his and Ryan's own budget what gives? Obama seemed in taking too much the high road to the point well...still who would ant to have a beer with Romney?

Thanks, especially for the beer line. I thought Romney was more "likable" last night than I had ever seen him. Does that mean, in Obama's memorable description of Hillary Clinton from 2008, that he was "likeable enough"? I have no idea.

Why wasn't there more about the differences which were obvious? This was supposed to be about common ground? Clinton was the master of this path of argumentation, so why didn't he pass this on to Obama? You have to keep your head held high. Did it seem he hadn't had enough sleep?

I remember an Obama address to Congress after the Tea Party took over the House in which he first introduced his "jobs plan." It was a remarkable performance--high energy, high-intensity, and very effective. The contrast between that and what we saw last night is stark. Not being privy to the president's sleep schedule, I won't speculate on the cause.

Isn't possible all average American citizens lost in this debate because the candidates' answers didn't tell the hard truths about our country's situation: our politicians are frozen in partisan positions; taxes are too low for some and too high for others; the military business and financial industries have too much political power; the tax code is riddled with unfairness; all of us expect too much but don't want to pay for it; foreign nations are catching up with us competitively; our education system is inadequate; we have too many unnecessary wars; we are too dependent on foreign oil; financial regulations are too few on the banks too big to fail or jail; we can't control foreign nations and Americans are too preoccupied with sports, beer and dancing with the stars to understand or act on the issues even in their own self-interest?

I sure do agree with you. The quality of public discourse in this country is appalling. We now seem to expect our politicians to avoid painful truths--at least the politicians act as though we do.  And the decline of civic participation at all levels worries me as it obviously worries you. Many school districts in the country have dropped civics courses entirely. Many in the younger generations can't tell you the difference between House and Senate, or explain the role of the Supreme Court. It isn't hard to argue that we get what we deserve...

What is the definition of "middle class"?

The definition of middle class is in the eye of the  beholder.  We have no agreed definition. In polls, most Americans call themselves "middle class." Nearly all Americans don't have any idea what the real distribution of wealth and income is in this country.  

I didn't know Romney had a sense of humor. I was also impressed with his knowledge of statistics and the economy. I was a little turned off when he would interrupt the president or the moderator, but his whole performance impressed me favorably. I think the president was too condescending and vague in his answers. I didn't like that he rarely maintained eye contact with Romney.


Why this preoccupation with who "won" the debate? What's the basis for making that judgment? Aren't we just more confused about Romney's proposals after what he said last night? He's specific about the problems in our country, but what specifically will he do about the problems that's any different than what Obama is doing?

Good points, but I'd add another: Why do we join the candidates in exaggerating the role of the president every four years.  I cringe every time Romney announced "I will repeal Obamacare."  Does he know how our system works? That he cannot do that by himself? That the Founders purposely gave us a system of checks and balances that makes it impossible for one president to "solve" our problems? 

I don't know if anyone else came away with this impression, but when watching the debates last night, Mitt Romney struck me as a disappointed father browbeating his son with, "You've failed! You've failed! You've failed!" And the president looked very much like a browbeaten son who was unable to defend himself.

Thanks for this.

I'm amazed that neither Obama nor Lehrer ever brought this up, considering the flak Romney received for it even from commentators on the right. Any insight into why it was avoided? Thanks.

I too was amazed. Perhaps it was unnecessary for Obama to utter the words "47 percent," which everyone now knows, but not to say anything to remind voters of why they haven't warmed to Romney was astounding.

did it look alittle like nixon-kennedy cira '60?

Not in the slightest degree.  I'm sure you can find those debates on You Tube, and I recommend that you look for them. They will show you that 52 years is a long, long time.  The public discourse then was so much more serious, and more elevated, than it is today. 

Warning: they are in black-and-white, low-definition too.

Dear Mr. Kaiser, There has been a rush by media pundits to declare Mr. Romney the sure winner. I have to disagree with their assessment because, in my humble opinion, energetic exposition of vague and often reality-challenged statements does not constitute winning. No high school debate team could win with demonstrably false facts repeated over and over again (for instance, the claim on Medicare "cuts"), even with great conviction and sincerity. Many people look to the media for thoughtful, professional information. I am one them and I am disappointed. Just one (two part) question then: in declaring Mr. Romney the "winner," did not the fact that he reiterated multiple points shown (by, among others, Glenn Kessler) to be egregiously false enter into the equation? Is delivery all that pundits care about?

This is a subject for a long essay, not a quick answer, but I'll risk the latter because I care about it.

The punditocracy in this country is, broadly speaking, an embarrassing mediocrity.  Sure, we have some wonderful, smart and entertaining pundits, a surprising number of them working for The Washington Post, but they are exceptions to the rule. Last night's post-debate talking heads were, for me, a powerful reminder of this painful fact.

Yes, a great many political commentators ignore factual errors and lies. To paraphrase Grandland Rice, they think it's not how the candidate plays the game, but whether the candidate "won" by some ephemeral standard of impressions and appearances. Partly, this is because a lot of the commentators are themselves less than expert on substance, but fancy themselves highly knowledgable about impression-making. Partly it is the preoccupation with "the horse race" in presidential campaigns. Our political culture has been deteriorating for many years. [Commercial plug: I wrote a book that covers this subject a few years back: SO DAMN MUCH MONEY is the title, available in paperback! End of plug.]


Silly question, but does last night's debate really matter? Yes, it gave Romney the re-energizing that he's needed, but there are still two more debates to go--and historically, it's always the last thing you do that people remember most.

Not silly, but premature. We won't know for a while, will we? Like Jim Fallows on The Atlantic, I anticipate the next twist in the campaign story line can be predicted with confidence: "Romney's comeback..."  Political journalists have a stake in a good horserace, and they will promote it. Moreoever, the injection of hope that Romney gave his own troops last night will have a real impact on their morale, and hence perhaps on their effectiveness and determination.  Keep in mind the long-term consistency of the polls in this race.  They have changed by only very small margins in more than a year. The  result in November will be close. The swing states are all that matter.  

Obama seemed to be looking for the safe win, but there is no such thing. Is there a debate defense for an opponent who simply lies? Obama may come out a winner, however, once videos of Romney sayng the things he denied are put together.

Thanks for this. I do think Romney gave the ad-makers a lot of new raw material last night.

Why are you and the Chattering Class obsessed over Romney's remark about Big Bird? I know you are biased and are looking for anything to take him down, but it's not NEARLY the big deal that you are making it out to be.

I love know-it-alls like this poster. Well, I don't love them at all, to be honest, but I don't mind at all the chance to say this: Why do people like you make such assumptions about people like me? I haven't mentioned Big Bird here, and except for that one reference, I won't. But you, who know it all, are so sure that I have or would that you send in this question. Howcome?

It appears that from strategic standpoint, winning must mean influencing undecided voters and not rallying supporters. There were definitely two different styles in this debate--what do polls show as results among undecideds? And was there any determination if undecided voters really watched it (aside from the ones participating to take a survey)? From outward appearances, it seems that the debates have become a meaningless echo chamber for candidate pontifications...

Thanks.  It is a fact, apparently, that the undecideds are, disproportionately, also the uninformed and the uninterested. I am struck by the pontifications of the pundits who tell us how some political oration will change the attitudes of people whom the pundit doesn't know, and couldn't possibly empathize with. This happens all the time. It has long seemed to me that the political class in Washington lives in a bubble that it doesn't begin to understand. 

Obama came off like a professor (not surprisingly) who's taught the same course one too many times and is thinking about his upcoming sabbatical rather than the class right in front of him. Romney was the kid who raises his hand at the beginning of class and just keeps it up there whole time so he can answer every question. Obama may have had the facts on his side, but that was whole problem, Too many facts for the average viewer to digest. Romney spoke in broad, sweeping tones, which clearly came off better, despite his overall lack of substance and inconsistencies (which Obama refused to engage). Debates are all about style and appearance, and on that score Romney wiped the floor with Obama. Disheartening for Obama supporters, but I don't expect to see huge changes in how he conducts himself the next time. In other words, Obama is going to be Obama, and you either like that or you don't. Also, if there were any "rules," they went by the wayside in the first five minutes. I like Jim Lehrer and all that, but as a moderator he was pretty much a non-entity.


Like many others who tuned in last night, I saw a tired and exhausted President. Is there any truth to the idea that, secretly, he doesn't want a second term? The idea has been floated by some pundits. They claim that he's been discouraged by the gridlock and wants an exit strategy. One thing that was really jarring was his statement that he and Michelle would celebrate their next anniversary in very different circumstances.

You might like to read the wonderful book on Obama by my colleage David Maraniss, THE STORY. It is the definitive biography of the pre-politician Obama, and it shows what a competitive person he is. I can't imagine he would be anything but devastated by defeat this year.

After the debate I saw a repeat clip of a recent rally showing an smiling, energetic, charismatic, charming President Obama charging onto the stage. Where was that guy? For content/style I'd give Obama C+/F. I'd give Romney A/A, but what grade do you get when the prof finds out you plagiarized your paper? Unfortunately, people saw what they saw, which is what counts. After the event fact checking and demonstration of contradictions, impossibilities, and evasions are really irrelevant.


Not meaning to be insubstantial, but Mitt Romney's smile creeped me out. His expression never changed while President Obama was speaking. And Romney's smile never reached his eyes. I also thought that President Obama was tentative in his responses. And last night should be Jim Lehrer's last as debate moderator.

and thanks to you.

Why did Obama not answer the questions asked of him?, i.e. the moderator asked Romney if he had a question to ask Obama after the first segment.. "Mr. President please explain your stand on trickle-down economics?" Obama went off on a bumbling non-related response and never answered Romney's question. The media keeps saying that Romney does talk specifics or details, but Obama will not answer questions of his past tenure and the poor job that he has done. Romney was the clear winner of the debate last night (67% poll) and I'm off the fence and a registered Dem that will definitely be voting for Romney.

Thanks for this. I would argue that both candidates ducked the too-few occasions when Jim Lehrer asked them for a specific reply. Both just stuck to their well-rehearsed talking points. Which is typical of these events, alas.  

You wonder why there has never been a groundswell for a REAL debate, in which the candidates question each other without any moderator.  Wouldn't that have to be better than this? 

The correct question is, will anyone change their vote based on last night's performance? Because the two candidates are so different that anyone who bases their vote on a debate means that they are only interested in hiring the best debater, not the best president.


Where are the young people?

Ahh, what a good question! Yes, I am vulnerable here--born in 1943, might as well confess it. But we are seriously short of smart young commentators. Ezra Klein of The Post is a wonderful exception in my opinion, but we could use a lot more, on both sides of the fence.

Has there been any analysis yet on what radio listeners thought vs. those who saw the debate on television? We've often heard that the radio listeners thought Nixon won the debates. How much of the praise for Romney is based on body language and the split screen?

How many radio listeners do you imagine there were? I suspect it's a very small and very skewed group: night watchmen, truck drivers and others trapped in their cars, who else? In 1960 radio was still a big medium for such events, though TV had already overtaken it. Now?

Everyone with preexisting conditions will be covered (don't ask me how), Tax rates will be lowered (don't ask me what deductions I will cut) -- I mean, why isn't the press hammering on this? Instead, I woke up to " a big win for Romney!" This is all it takes to woo the press? Smoke and mirrors?


Part of Romney's appeal is the fact that he has a long public record, we know what makes him tick & how he reacts under pressure. Since Obama, in some respects, came out of know where, there is just not the same comfort level.

Obama came out of know where? 

Noted comments from undecided women voters who found Romney "hostile," "pushy", "overly aggressive". He may have impressed male, white voters but not all the women appreciated his bullying, as we see enough of that in the workplace.

Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster and a very good one in my opinion, assumbled a group of undecided women in Denver to watch the debate last night and react to it. His findings are interesting, and suggest that for that audience at least, the debate did not have a big impact.  You can read Stan's findings here:

I'm in the sales business, and know that I lose a client's attention if I use more than two numbers in a sentence. The numbers spouted were non-stop and meaningless, unless one is producing campaign commercials. Do the future "debates" promise more of the same?

I think this is a very important point. I'm surprised frankly that so few of you posting here have referred to the blizzard of numbers and the general wonkishness of the debate. I'm interested to see if Nielsen tracked the audience half-hour by half-hour. It seems to me entirely possible that the audience fell off dramatically as the evening wore on.

Do you see the President being more aggresive in the future debates?

Good question and I just don't know how he may adjust. If my pscyhoanalysis above is correct (and it may well be wrong), then becoming aggressive now is unlikely. But if he starts slipping in the polls, anything is possible.

I'm a social conservative, so I suppose I'm what you'd call Romney's base, although I'm not that committed to economic conservatism. But I don't trust him to represent my interests. He flip-flops too much in order to get elected, which he's demonstrated again by changing the rhetoric on his tax plan and health care. I also thought he spent too much time smirking.

Thanks for this.

I was puzzled by Romney's insistence on saving so many parts of the ACA -- if I was a right wing Republican (and I am not), I would be furious at him. And am I the only person confused by Romney's pride in the Massachusetts plan -- isn't it the same as the ACA?? Also, Romney said: "Massachusetts sent a Republican senator to defeat Obamacare, and you wouldn't play bipartisan ..." THAT MAKES NO SENSE. "We sent someone to beat you, and you weren't nice to him." What???

Thanks for this, which will be the last one today. I am more than ever impressed by the intelligence of our readers, and thank you call for participating. As I feared, a great many comments and questions are still on my list, but time is up.

A final comment: From a reporter's perspective, I am intrigued to watch conservative Republicans' reactions today and in the days ahead. I agree with this and other comments on the degree to which Romney tried to change his stripes last night. He sounded a lot more like his father, a certificable Rockefeller (liberal) Republican, last night than he sounded like the man who beat Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum last spring. How will that play on the right?

Thanks again to all. See you next time.


If you would like to keep the conversation going, please join us for another live chat at 1 p.m. ET with Brad Hirschfield about what was said in the debate from an ethical standpoint. Thank you.

In This Chat
Robert G. Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser is Associate Editor of The Washington Post.
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