Most everyone agrees that the president was soundly beaten in the first debate. Pundits have postulated, spin-masters have attempted to spin, Al Gore has blamed the altitude, and so on. Yet none of the talking heads have pointed out the true reason that the president is seen to have lost the debate so badly.
The truth is not as much that Gov. Romney was so great, or that the president was so terrible, nor is it as much about how events played out for 90 minutes on the debate stage, but rather how those events were observed and commented on over social media that delivered the real verdict. In fact, it’s quite likely that the opining pundits who’ve weighed in over the past 24 hours were equally influenced by the reactions they viewed over Twitter as much as by what they saw on the debate stage.
Now, this does not diminish what transpired during the debate. Gov. Romney came well prepared and ready to have a discussion on the issues, point out the president’s failings, and give a general idea of his plan for the nation. President Obama came to protect his lead in the polls, stick to his talking points on the issues, and generally just play defense. The trouble is that this was not the approach the president’s supporters were looking for. They were expecting a debate in which the president destroyed Romney over his 47% comments, his record at Bain Capital, his previous policy position changes, and his tax records. In short, they expected the president to close out this race. In fairness, President Obama telegraphed to his supporters that he was not going there, saying at a campaign rally on Monday that he “was looking forward to a serious discussion” about the real issues of this campaign. Even on this front though, the president failed to deliver, as Romney rebutted much of the president’s attacks early in the debate, and Obama appeared to be flustered, irritated, and out of ammunition for the remainder.
The president’s supporters clearly did not get his signal about an issues-focused debate, or didn’t care, and they unleashed their frustrations over Twitter and other media for Obama’s lack of personal attacks on Romney. This only added to the jubilation of Romney supporters, who were already exuberant over how well the governor was faring. In a debate where most didn’t expect Mitt Romney to even be able to match the president, he was winning. Record amounts of tweets went out every minute in a stream of public opinion. Celebrities, politicians, pundits, and big-name news personalities all gave their input 140 characters at a time, as did millions of people who aren’t famous. To those following the debate on social media, the combination of beaming Romney supporters, and disappointed Obama supporters could not have painted a clearer picture of what they were seeing play out themselves. President Obama was getting beaten badly.
The post-debate analysis reflected exactly what the interwebs had already concluded. The president’s surrogates were incredibly slow to get to the spin room, likely rounding up behind the scenes to formulate a strategy for combatting the mess they had on their hands. But seriously, how can you really spin the results when it was the actual people watching, not the pundits or GOP spinsters, declared Romney the winner? Simple, you can’t. In a debate where the expectations for Romney were not terribly high, and President Obama was expected by his supporters to rip the challenger apart with personal attacks en route to winning the debate handily, more than 60 million people witnessed the polar opposite happen, and social media captured their reactions in real time.
While the results of Wednesday night’s debates will not translate into a 50-state Reagan landslide for Romney by any means, it does do damage to the president’s campaign on a number of fronts. President Obama is likely to take a hit in the polls. The president’s campaign, already notorious for being pretty tough, will now have to risk looking exceedingly nasty by doubling down on hard attacks against Mitt Romney to make up ground. In a campaign season already fraught with mudslinging on both sides, this tactic could easily backfire. Most people are expecting a much tougher Obama in the next debate, but the president is backed into a corner there as well. Since the president didn’t use the personal attacks on Romney over his 47% comments, or the other personal attacks his campaign has waged thus far, the Obama campaign can only make these attacks on the campaign trail. If the president attempts to use them in the next debate, Romney can simply brand him as desperate, exactly as he did with Rick Perry after his poor debate performance in the GOP primaries.
You can’t ignore the irony here. Internet media helped transform a little-known Illinois senator into an overnight cultural icon based on one convention speech. The same social media outlets then helped propel that senator, with no real experience in leadership or management, to the presidency in a wave of good will and the promise of hope and change. Four years later, if President Obama loses re-election in a race he was winning prior to the night of October 3, you can point directly to that same media for aiding in his downfall.