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Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist

  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Undebatable: Presidential race now more interesting

Posted by James McPherson on October 4, 2012

Mitt Romney won the first 2012 presidential debate handily, as everyone from Michael Moore to the foreign press could see. I’m surprised that President Obama failed bring up “the 47 percent,” women’s issues, the auto industry or immigration, or to counter Romney’s many misstatements and exaggerations.

Still, I can’t say I’m shocked at the outcome. I doubt that George W. Bush is, either, considering his first debate as an incumbent–or that he would be, anyway, if he weren’t getting ready to visit Romney’s bankers in the Cayman Islands. First debates are good for challengers.

Remember, Obama hasn’t debated for four years. He speaks better when he has a teleprompter, or when can interact with (and feed off of) an audience, and the debate crowd had been muzzled. Jim Lehrer did an abysmal job as moderator. And despite all the talk by pundits before the debate about how good a debater he supposedly is, I’ve never seen it. Hillary Clinton beat him in their debates, and John McCain did more to lose the 2008 presidential debates than Obama did to win them. Besides, McCain had to debate with Bush and Sarah Palin strapped to his back.

Debate moments may matter to the media and political junkies, but probably no presidential debate has ever made a difference in the outcome. To repeat: Not one presidential debate has changed the outcome of an election. Despite all the recent talk about Ronald Reagan’s supposed “comeback” against Jimmy Carter, as researchers have pointed out, “No candidate who was leading in the polls six weeks before the election has lost the popular vote since Thomas Dewey in 1948.” And stats guru Nate Silver gave Obama an 86 percent chance of winning just before the debate.

Obama still leads in the states he needs to win, has a better ground game than Romney, and is better on the stump. He still has the natural advantage of any sitting president, in that he will be seen on the news every night and has the opportunity to do things that only a president can do. He’ll probably throw out the first pitch at a Nationals playoff game–and maybe an Orioles game, too. Obviously he should do more “presidential” stuff–meeting with world leaders, for example, rather than hanging out with the ladies of “The View.”

It’s still the president’s contest to lose–but ask Bush’s former baseball team, the Texas Rangers, if it’s possible to blow a big lead. Obama may have to wake up and study up for the next two debates. He shouldn’t take for granted that Americans are too intelligent to elect a guy with no meaningful foreign policy experience or who makes vague domestic promises that he won’t be able to keep. After all, that’s exactly what voters did in 2008. Just ask our current Secretary of State.

Same-day follow-up: Rachel Maddow had a fascinating piece tonight, demonstrating that of the seven times a sitting president has debated a challenger, presidents now have a sparkling record of 1-6. Even Ronald Reagan won as the challenger and then lost as president. In addition, Nate Silver actually boosted his calculation of Obama’s chance of presidential victory to 87 percent. James Downie of the Washington Post is probably correct when he  writes, “Obama lost the first debate, but he will still win the election.” And Obama himself seemed cheerful and confident on the stump today.

16 Responses to “Undebatable: Presidential race now more interesting”

  1. William Gates said

    Romney had a good debate. He was prepared, didn’t stumble over his words, and for the first time looked comfortable. He took advantage of the place many people feels he has the advantage: the topics for the night. Obama looked shook, but also clearly did his best not to blame previous administrations, only mentioning what he inherited once. Romney didn’t look like a robot this time, he looked as if someone gave him a Xanax. He did a good job. Obama not so much.

    They both stuck to issues, played fairly, and I like the part about no applause or boos. I personally can’t watch these debates for very long, so that’s good for me. It would only prolong them. Both sides continue to throw out unverifiable numbers concerning each other’s policies so that’s what makes these debates useless in a lot of ways, but I guess it’s good for TV ratings. Notice it’s on Wednesday night so not to interfere with Thursday night football.

    If a person likes Romney, these debates won’t change their mind. Same for Obama. But at least it gives the media something to analyze over the next week or so. Me? I’m still voting for Gary Johnson.

  2. Utah said

    A little butt-hurt there, aren’t we Professor? This post is the biggest crock of rationalization that I have read. Good job. You are playing to type.

    Oh, and thanks for the links to our blog.

  3. James McPherson said

    William: Pretty good analysis, I think. And Johnson isn’t a bad option, especially if you’re not in a swing state.

    Utah: “A little butt-hurt”

    You and our doctor friend like that phrase so much, I assume he’s proctologist; I don’t know why you like it so much. But I also don’t see where you get that my feelings are hurt, since I’ve repeatedly stated here and elsewhere that I likely won’t for either of the guys pictured above. If you were even a semi-regular reader, you’d know I’m not a big Obama fan.

    “This post is the biggest crock of rationalization that I have read.”

    Then you really need to branch out beyond the right-wing media more often. Some liberals–and some conservatives who’ve been whining about “biased polls”–are doing a much better job of rationalizing. 😉

    “Good job.”

    Thank you.

    “You are playing to type.”

    Meaningless. Perhaps you mean I’m typing to play, as is typically the case when I comment at the RNL.

    “thanks for the links to our blog”

    You’re welcome. Thanks for doing a post that combined various overseas reactions, so I wouldn’t have to link them each separately.

  4. William Gates said

    “Pretty good analysis, I think. And Johnson isn’t a bad option, especially if you’re not in a swing state”

    I’m definitely in one. Florida. But I don’t have any love for either guy so I don’t feel either deserve my vote. Romney had a good showing last night. That’s good for the people that like him. Won’t change my view of him though. I’m just not one that hops on the bangwagon easily and it would be hard for me to give full support for a candidate that I didn’t endorse from the beginning. There are guys that in 2008 voted for McCain in the primaries and supported Cain, Newt, etc in these 2012 primaries that are now all over Romney. I just can’t so that. The Anyone But Bush theory got us Obama. Now the Anyone but Obama theory can pretty much play out the same way. If Romney isn’t a RINO I guess I just don’t know the definition of what that means. Or better yet, maybe I don’t know what the definition of republican is.

  5. […] Women's Voices. Women Vote « Undebatable: Presidential race now more interesting […]

  6. jm said


    I agree, the: “Presidential race now more interesting.”

    I am fascinated about the historic scope of the social media coverage of the Denver Presidential Debate.

    Here is my take: “ELECTION 2012: DEBATES: Four sentences and 48,000 tweets about “Big Bird” plus defunding PBS may have derailed Mitt Romney, ” LINK: http://janeymccullough.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/election-2012-debates-four-sentences-and-48000-tweets-about-big-bird-plus-defunding-pbs-may-have-derailed-mitt-romney/

  7. augger said

    Maybe Obama really was tired ….

    Obama Raises $150M in September, Tries to Block ‘Blockbuster’ Donor Scandal

    But one has to wonder …. where does all his money come from?

    Does 1979 newspaper column shed light on 2008 campaign story?

    Stay tuned folks. Stay tuned. 🙂

  8. James McPherson said

    JM, good post. Hard to believe that Romney seriously thinks cutting one-tenth of one percent of the budget–and taking it from something as popular as public television–would be a smart move.

    Augger, I wouldn’t get my hopes up. There’s a supposed “donor scandal” on each side in almost every election. Most amount to nothing, and even when there’s some “there” there–as with Bill Clinton–the candidate never seems to suffer. And even most conservatives, I would think, consider Franke Meile of the Daily Inter Lake in the Montana Rockies to be a joke. But since you’re apparently a fan, here’s and oldie but goody for you: http://www.dailyinterlake.com/opinion/columns/frank/article_a039b358-be25-11df-9a35-001cc4c03286.html

  9. augger said

    “But since you’re apparently a fan” — Don’t know Franke Meile (but maybe you do), and frankly do not care too much for his opine.

    However, since you missed the obvious, allow me to narrow it down for you a bit. The interesting thing in this opinion, is the original article by Vernon Jarrett (you know, they named a medal after him).


  10. James McPherson said

    If the “obvious,” as you put it, is the original article, you’ll notice that there’s nothing in it about Obama. The only thing that ties the two together is Miele’s speculation. And he’s a crackpot, so I don’t see this going anywhere.

  11. Strawman said

    OK it October. What will be the surprise? or should I say surprises? One that will not surprise anyone will be the massive misinformation pumped out by the Super Pacs on both sides. And oh course neither candidate can control those messages. Yeah right. No matter what surfaces in October, we all know that this years “kick the can until after the election stuff” is a larger than usual list and could call some into question if they voted for the right person. I do predict a very interesting “Lame Duck Session” and of course I am staying with my Romney wins with 273. Still not sure how unemployment drops .3% to 7.8 % on only 114,000 jobs created. Must be that New New math for sure.


  12. James McPherson said

    One good thing about early voting–it makes October surprises less effective. A lot of folks have already cast their ballots.

    “One that will not surprise anyone will be the massive misinformation pumped out by the Super Pacs on both sides.”

    For sure.

    “And oh course neither candidate can control those messages. Yeah right.”

    🙂 Did you see the Stephen Colbert segments on this, when he set up his own Super PAC? http://www.colbertsuperpac.com/

    “Still not sure how unemployment drops .3% to 7.8 % on only 114,000 jobs created. Must be that New New math for sure.”

    This whole jobs report (and other gov’t reports) process has bugged me for long time (since even before Bush, so I’m not blaming him; I don’t know when it started). Every week they release numbers, and the media report those numbers as if they’re real. And then every week or so, the numbers are revised–sometimes up, sometimes down–as more complete data comes in, often making the initial report fairly meaningless. But unlike the initial, faulty report, the revisions don’t get much media attention.

    Congrats on sticking with your prediction. I’m sticking with mine, too. 🙂 Have a great weekend.

  13. James McPherson said

    Here’s an interesting story about the jobs numbers: http://money.cnn.com/2012/10/05/news/economy/welch-unemployment-rate/index.html?hpt=po_c1

  14. Strawman said

    Yeah the whole donor thing on both sides are out of control. I would support a law that would make all donations, no matter how much it was traceable to a real person or organization. I don’t like to read articles where someone took in 180 million in a month and 80 percent of it is below the red line of tracing it. Also the million dollar donations to Pacs on both side from individuals is just plan wrong. Thanks I saw the CNN report this weekend. Fuzzy math, smoke and mirrors and many other political expressions could be used to describe it. Glad all things are not calculated with such variables. If he wins with 273, I could get a gig on your radio show as a pundit. That is another area that is quite disturbing, Pundits is just a term used for someone that can just repeat talking point. I guess I might be considered the Joe Biden of Pundits so I should stay away from that profession.

    I also think he will get the 273 without OHIO. As the plot thickens Or as Obama spelled it OIHO.

  15. […] to stray from pre-scripted jokes and talking points. Obama might even prepare (though after his first debate performance this year, I assume he’s done a bit more prep for tonight’s […]

  16. […] Obama made this election a lot closer than it should have been by sleepwalking through his first debate with Mitt Romney and, in my view, by failing to run enough of an optimistic campaign that […]

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