The second presidential debate: Who won?

Oct 17, 2012

Tuesday marked the second general election debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Join associate editor Robert Kaiser discussed what was said, who said it, if either candidate was helped or hurt by the debate and more.

I am struck on the tone of these undecided Long Island voters differed from those that we may have heard from more conservative political areas. The gun control question was less about second amendright rights and more about limiting AK-47; the immigration questions was less about hostility to "illegals" about more about their plight as workers; the comparison to GW Bush question was not reverential to the most recent GOP President. As a result, Romney was on the defensive most of the night.

First, welcome to our discussion. We have lots of comments and questions, and welcome more. I will answer as many as I can over the next hour.

I too was struck by the tone, and the New York accents, of the questioners last night. Did Gallup, which found these voters, get only left-leaning undecideds? We'll never know.  But I thought the questions were actually very effective in prompting a real debate. And we had that.


Please stick with us as we work out a technical glitch. Bob will begin answering more questions in just a minute. Thank you.

Sorry, we had a technical glitch, all my fault. Back in business now...

Isn't it disconcerting to realize that rude manners, interrupting the other person, laughing without reason etc. are considered 'presidential' these days?  In the quest for power, has decorum been compromised? The debate results might be Obama: 1, Romney: 1, but sadly the average American's score so far is a zero.

I don't agre with you, I have to say. American politics have never featured much "decorum," and we're better off for that in my opinion. Decorum was compro mised in the 18th Century, when newspapers spread rumors about Thomas Jefferson's relations with his slaves. It isn't pretty, but it's the American way I think.

President Obama wins second debate hands down!

As you will see, not everyone agrees! But thanks for posting.


For what it's worth, I thought Obama got the best of it too.  The contrast with Round One was stark. He knew what he wanted to say, and he said it.  Romney on the other hand looked defensive at many moments. He got a lot of tough questions from those New Yorkers, and didn 't always have a good answer.

The moderator should have a timed-clock in front of him/her to keep track of the amount of time each candidate speaks. Obama had 3 or 4 minutes more speaking time in each debate. He got the last two minutes last night, proceeded to bring-up the 47% video and Romney was left with no chance to respond.

I felt it was pretty obvious that Obama was getting more words in than Romney.  I'm not sure what the moderator can do about that, but it wasn't even for sure.

Was Obama's last comment regarding the 47% with no chance of rebuttal by Romney a cheap shot?

Why a cheap shot? Have you watched the video of Romney making those remarks? I recommend it if you haven't. 

Did Crowley do a good job? Well, I counted two times where she injected a comment/opinion in the form of a rebuttal question to Obama that challenged Romney, but she never challenged anything said by Obama... In fact, she went out of her way to keep Romney from rebutting. Her selection of questions is telling... The Romney v Bush question...really? There wasn't a better question? Nothing like that for O! And the Libya "interjection" was completely wrong and a violation of her role as moderator!

As an old-fashioned reporter, I have to say I liked the way Crowley handled the debate. But your points are well taken; I can see that a Romney supporter could feel she was tougher on him than on Obama on the follow-ups. 

But I disagree with you and others who attack her for being "srong" about what Obama said about Libya. In the Rose Garden the day after the Bengazi incident, Obama referred to "acts of terror" in a way that clearly applied to the killing of the ambassador and three others. Check out Glenn Kessler's  Fact Checker today. Here's a link:

I thought she was terrible. She let Obama talk over her, and she was biased against Romney.

The "I thought" line above is mine, from my post-debate post last night. So here's another Crowley critic. Thanks for posting.

I don't know how much we can get out of a candidate in a 90 second response to a question. I think it would be much more useful if the candidates gave a 30 minute State of the Union speech where they list what they see as the current issues that we face and how they plan to address them.

Boy do I disagree with this. Modern campaigns are primarily talking-points recitations. And you want more, not less, of that? I like the town hall format best, because it allows for the maximum possible unscripted moments, which to me are by far the most revealing. You want another speech, go to the candidates' websites and read speeches. But keep in mind that with the rarest of exceptions, no campaign speech is actually written by the candidate.

No matter who is perceived as the winner will they get much of bounce in polls since the last debate is only 5 days away? With such little time between the last two debates it seems to me last nights debate will be quickly forgotten.

Not sure I follow your logic.  The first debate gave Romney some momentum; if Obama stopped that last night, it's  important. The number of days that really matters is 20--the number to election day, if I am counting correctly.

On the other hand, I urge everyone to resist the temptatkon to accept that the debates have a really big impact.  I am fascinated by the fact that the Post-ABC Poll did not really change at all from before the first debatd until last weekend. The numbers in this excellent poll stayed the same.  As Dan Balz has been telling us all year, we face a close election.

Towards the end of the debate, Romney said something that made the audience murmur a bit, "Government does not create jobs." This was after he spent quite a bit of time eariler in the debate talking about how his plan will create 12 million jobs. Will this be seen as a disconnect?

Romney's assertion if of course incorrect. Watch members of Congress and local communities react when the government opens or closes a new military base or other installation in their neighborhood. Government creates, or eliminates, lots of jobs.

"Will this be seen as a disconnect?"  By whom? This is a big country. People's reactions are all over the place, as this chat demonsrates. 

I suspect most viewers thought the winner was whoever's facts they agree with. What are the barriers to North American energy independence? Do the tax plans add up? Can we afford the defense plans, and does it create enough jobs to justify it? Is there a health care crisis that Obamacare will fix? Would increasing manufacturing create good jobs, or is it premised on automation specifically to keep down labor costs? At what point did Intelligence determine that Banghazi was not a YouTube protest? What effect does immigration, legal and illegal, have on unemployment? I suspect whosever answers to those questions you agree with, you think they won.

This strikes me as wise, though I do think there are some people capable of independent judgement divorced from personal preference. Some people don't have strong personal biases, believe it or not. A lot of them work in my profession.

Did the NRA candidate make news by not knowing that automatic weapons are legal to own in this country since the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban in 2004?

You are referring to Gov. Romney. I don't know the answer, but I suspect it won't be big news, because we seem so used to the idea that these weapons are everywhere among us, and easy to acquire.

Like most of us, Obama is disappointed in his last four years. Like most of us, he doesn't expect that the next four will be much different. But, like most of us, he figures he'd at least do a better job than Romney. So, though his heart is no longer in it, on he slogs.

This is one view...

Hi Robert, Unlike many others I didn't see one triumphing that much over the other--what gives Obama a edge was his identification with the needs of the majority. What was striking for me, was the cutaway shots in which Mitt Romney looked totally uncomfortable and or in pain; as if he was about to jump out of his skin. Interpretation: Mitt Romney has crafted a plan of obfuscation and efficient arguments loaded with factoids. The only problem is if in encounters he has to deviate from the program it can all come crashing down. His campaign is data-forcing but the electorate is human and their feelings can conflict with a well-oiled argument. Obama may not come across as warm and fuzzy but he does feel genuine.

...and this is another. Thanks to you both for posting.

I wish President Obama expanded on Governor Romneys lack of leadership running Massachusetts. He was a terrible Governor, in many arenas. Too many topics/issues to list.

Romney did leave office as a very unpopular governor, after passing on a chance to run for re-election. But he was a Republican in a heavily Democratic state. It's a fact that his campaign is not spending a nickel in Mass. this time. 

Not one substantive question about healthcare? At least one of the 80+ undecided voters in attendance must have submitted a question of Obamacare.

Isn't that remarkable? We have a new law that radically alters health care in this country, and provides coverage to 30 million or more uninsured Americans, at considerable cost. Romney promises to repeal it, but doesn't offer a real alternative. Obama, noting that he embraced Romney's model from Massachusetts, rarely brings it up.  We live in a strange country.  More accurately, the county we live in has strange politics.

Both candidates are taking some heat today for "relating" too much to each other and not enough to the questioners. If it were up to me, we'd forget the whole TH format all together. It feels phony and forced. The last candidate who used it to any effect was Clinton, and I'm sorry, but neither of these guys is Bill Clinton. Why not just sit the two of them down at a table with a moderator, no audience, and let them go at it? That's what ended up happening anyway.

I saw it very differently. The questions from the audience were, I thought, a good deal more interesting and pointed than, for example, Jim Lehrer's questions in the first debate.  Real people in the room altered the atmosphere for the better in my view. 

So in all four debates there will be no mention of foreclosure (I am assuming that the final foreign affairs debate will exclude the topic.) If forecasts are right, some 10% of the US population will move after a f.c., short sale or other distress filing. That's a disaspora that demands explication.

More evidence of our strange politics.  The victims of the Great Recession get very little attention.

Bob-I consider myself an Independent and seem lately to vote for the lesser of two evils. I am shocked at how biased the news media has become. Why can't the debates have moderators that are truly independent? Last night Candy Crowley came to Obamas defense on several occasions, i.e. the Libya question. She backed up Obama with an eroneous statement-he never called the attach a terrorist attack until many days later, he even sent Susan Rice out to spread mis-information about the cause of the attack. Don't we need to get back to real unbiasd reporting?

Thanks for this.

Let me give you the Obama Rose Garden quote that you can find in Glenn Kessler this morning, linked to above. This was part of what he said the day after the four Americans were killed:

“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”

To my eye and ear, with these words he labeled the Bengazi incident an act of terror. Do you understand those words differently?


I know consensus is that Obama won, but I didn't see it. He didn't smile enough. He didn't seem present with or connect to the questioners (like Clinton does, and Obama has done). And he appeared weak by being perturbed by Romney instead of dismissive of him. Romney seemed relaxed and confident. I just don't know where my President has gone and I'm very, very worried that his pathological contender may win the election.

Thanks for sharing this contrarian view. 

Here's the thing about the binders full of women: Does Romney not realize how tone deaf he sounds? "I had no trusted female advisors or campaign staffers, so I had my staff find some and add them to my cabinet sheerly for the sake of appearances and not because I was genuinely impressed by their qualifications." Unbelievable.

I've received fewer comments about this than I expected. Obama made a big play for women last night, and with this reply, I'd say Romney helped him. 

I think we saw with Jim Lehrer the last instance of the "gentleman moderators" who ask the question and just let whatever happens, happens. I think this is a result of the fact that campaigns are much more about scoring points all the time than they were previously. I think Candy Crowley, like Martha Raddatz last week, was much more of a referee than we had seen before. It wasn't about asking questions as much as it was keeping everyone on task, focused on the topic and when necessary within factual confines. Personally I like it a lot better with a lot more interplay- the old format felt like two people talking past each other rather than a debate.

I agree with you. A lot of others do not!

As a working professional woman, I will readily forgive Romney for the "binders of women" misstatement. I think his wording just came out wrong. But I think he really whiffed on the larger issue -- the fact that he had to go out to women's groups to find women job candidates is jarring. Did he really not know ANY women who would be qualified? How can you be a person with his professional and political background and not know women who are qualified? To me, that indicates that he wasn't including them all along. When he realized he needed to as a Governor, it took a search committee. Holy heck. That is so disheartening.

Another interesting comment on Romney and women

How can you judge a debate when the questions are selected to favor one candidate over another? No way were those questions evenhanded!

Here's a Crowley critic, I guess--or a critic of Long Islanders chosen to ask questions? 

The Assault Weapons Ban dealt with semi-automatic weapons. Fully automatic weapons are legal but tightly regulated.

But a semi-automatic did all that damage in Aurora, no? 

I don't think you understand job creation. The government creates a opportunity for job creation, it does not create jobs. There are some private sector jobs created in your military base example, those are mostly the sevice type jobs. The vast majority of the jobs are government payroll, paid by taxes. Nothing is created, it's just the government spending our taxes in that location.

Next time you run into a cop, or a teacher, or a school bus driver, why don't you ask them if they have a real job. "Nothing is created"?  The house that cop buys, the money he/she earns to send a kid to college, the taxes he/she pays to support schools, the Pentagon, whatever? Your logic eludes me.

I wonder why neither candidate truly approached the debate format with an eye on what a "town hall" is meant to accomplish. Wouldn't it have been a starkly positive play, to actually answer the direct question asked by the voter, before launching into the prepared remarks on the general topic? For all the good it did, each question should have been "This is the tax question, tell us your stock tax answer." These questions came from individuals; it would have been nice if either future leader actually listened.

thanks for this.

While this was certainly a much better debate for Obama - avoiding the knockout punch and proving himself much more competent/effective - do you think he may be losing the likeability edge he has enjoyed? He's now been forced by his poor performance in Round 1 to go heavily on the attack, and that isn't the post-partisan candidate that many voters thought he was four years ago.

Interesting question. I am unable to answer it. Every voter gets to answer it for her/himself.

When faced with a hostile opponent unconcerned with respectful discussion, a moderator who went out of her way to cut him off so that Obama could have far more time to speak and a hostile crowd that asked Obama leaning questions, Romney handled himself so Presidentially that it is impossible to see anything other than him winning.


Isn't it telling that Obama supporters were critical of Jim Lehrer after round 1, and now Romney supporters are critical of Crowley? Sounds like sour grapes in both cases. Your candidate lost, so it must be the moderator's fault.

I suspect you are on to something here.

The question now becomes: what next? Will Obama's performance last night give him momentum again? Will it enable him to recapture the lead? And what kind of shelf life will last night's debate have, with another one looming on Monday?

That is indeed the horse-race question of the day, and it cannot be answered yet.

Did Mitt Romney really say, "if we are going to have women in the workforce," as if it is up for debate? Then he proceeded to say that women need to go home to make dinner for kids. How about parents need to go home to make dinner for kids and not all women are mothers? I thought these statements proved to me how much Romney's view of women is out of the mainstream and reality of most American women.


I agree that mentioning the 47% comment was in order and expected; the "facts" of 47% not paying taxes are accurate. Do you really believe that Romney begrudges social security entitlees, veterans, ... - that's where the distortion lies. The comment was referring to free loaders for whom the rest of taxpayers pay the bill. What is wrong with that?

Thanks for this. Did you watch Romney giving those remarks? He offered none of the qualifiers you provide for him here. I can't know that you're wrong, of course, but his remarks came across as harsh in my opinion. Is it a fact that the 47% who don' t pay federal income tax all refuse to take responsibility for their lives, as Romney actually said? I don't think so.


Hi Bob, Do you think the post debate "fact checking" has much effect on most people? It seems undecided voters at this point are not the political junkies checking every election related story.

Good point. Voters who are still undecided are unlikely to make their final decision based on "facts," it seems to me. Emotions will likely be more influential.

I know the Post has never endorsed a Republican candidate in modern history, but this level of cover up is laughable. Even your own fact checker and Crowley herself admit that Romney was mostly right. Also that Obama never used the word terrorism and it took multiple days for his administration to not blame it on a video. I don't know if you even read the fact checker's post, but you couldn't have gotten it more wrong. You should post the whole statement now to set the record straight.

Well, the very first time a presidential candidate was endorsed by The Washington Post was in 1952; the man endorsed was Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican. But what the editorial page does has no influence on me or other employees of the news department, believe it or not.  And I think I know what your answer to that is.

We have linked to Kessler's Fact Check, and it's easy for everyone to read. Yes, the Administration got the Begazi episode wrong initially. Was that a political conspiracy, or the fog of war--or nearly war? I don't know.  I daresay neither do you. But did Obama refer to the event as an act of terrorism?  I think he did.

Doesn't this make the third debate likely a draw? Part of the reason Obama was seen as doing so badly in round 1 was because people expected Obama to do well and Romney to be desperate, and instead Romney did well and Obama did poorly. Expectations magnified the result. Now, the aftereffects of Denver magnified the feeling of a strong debate by Obama last night. Next time, expectations should be more even, and it's reasonable to expect the result to be perceived that way, as well.

Well, we'll see, and in just five days. I've run out of time today.But we'll do this again after Monday night's debate in Florida. Please join us then.


Are you interested in the ethics/values each candidate addressed in last night's debate? If so, then join a live chat with Brad Hirschfield, which starts at 1 p.m. ET, or read the transcript when it's over.

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Robert G. Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser is Associate Editor of The Washington Post.
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