VIDEO – The history of first debates for incumbent presidents shows that the challenger almost always wins. In the video, Rachel Maddow explores the outcomes of each of the seven televised first debates for sitting presidents seeking re-election, including historical news footage of the debate results.
As every challenger to a sitting president has been (with the exception of Bob Dole in 1996), Mitt Romney was the consensus winner of the first debate against President Obama. Romney “won” the debate on style – he was energetic, prepared, and controlled the conversation (even rolling over moderator Jim Lehrer). President Obama appeared tired, was low-key in his responses, and was somewhat unprepared to rebut the aggressive attacks from Romney.
On substance, Mitt Romney spouted numerous lies, even repeating a lie about his tax plan cutting $5 trillion in revenue when the president did call him out on it. President Obama stuck to the same points he has been discussing throughout the campaign, but he missed many opportunities to inject the things that have been the narrative of his campaign thus far: Romney’s 47% video, Bain Capital, the auto bailout, women’s issues, and the fact that every month over the last two and a half years has produced private sector job growth.
But of the things President Obama said during the debate, he did not change the positions he has had all along. Romney, on the other hand, has already been called out for the numerous lies he told during the debate about his tax plan, Obama supposedly ‘raiding $716 billion from Medicare‘, and he repeatedly lied about clean energy stimulus funds.
It seemed the Romney tactic was, when confronted on the proposals and plans he has been campaigning on for almost two years, to simply deny things that are unfavorable with moderate voters. Many undecided, low-information voters who tuned in to watch the debate were taking their first look at Mitt Romney. And Romney knew he could get away with misleading low-information voters on his plans; the chances they will look further into anything he said are small. Nevertheless, Obama did little to refute Romney’s lying and in the hours after the debate, the story was about Romney ‘winning’ it.
The immediate aftermath left Obama supporters wondering ‘what happened?’, Romney supporters elated by his debating performance (and it was a performance), and network pundits from the right, left, and center reveling in the potential ratings boost they anticipate by having a horse race to cover for the final month.
But, as almost every incumbent president has done in his first debate, President Obama did not perform well and is perceived to have lost the debate by supporters, detractors, and pundits.
Why do presidents perform so poorly in their first debate for re-election?
The answer is simple: they have been for almost four years leading up to the first debate. They are not used to being directly challenged and those who do challenge the president, do so in the most diplomatic and polite way possible. They simply are not used to sharing a stage with anyone as an “equal”.
Also, incumbent presidents are busy being president, dealing with the many (sometimes life or death) issues of the day. A sitting president simply does not have the luxury to hide away for weeks or months preparing for a debate. A sitting president goes unopposed for his party’s nomination, so he hasn’t even participated in a debate since the last time he was running for office four years before. Other than campaigning and fundraising, Romney (as any challenger) had the luxury of being able to spend as much time as he needed to prepare for the first debate.
A challenger has already been through many recent debates during the grueling primary season and has developed and sharpened his debate skills at this point in the game. Mitt Romney participated in 19 debates in the last year during the GOP primary race and it certainly showed in his first debate with the president.
For these many reasons, it makes sense that sitting presidents always get caught off guard by their first debate for re-election. So, it is probably an overreaction to predict gloom and doom for Obama and unstoppable momentum for Romney after one debate. After all, Ronald Reagan lost his first debate with Walter Mondale and George W. Bush lost his first debate with John Kerry. Both the Mondale and Kerry campaigns were given a morale boost by their first debate wins, but that is about all the first debate usually amounts to. Mitt Romney’s debate win was necessary for him to stay in the race, but by no means will be the deciding factor of the election.