First Debate: For Obama It’s the 2010 Mid-terms All Over Again

Austin Texas — October 4, 2012. In the first debate of the quadrennial Presidential Debate Season, it was like the 2010 Mid-terms all over again. Not that there were presidential debates in 2010. It’s just that President Obama seemed to revert to his ‘pre-shellacking’ public speaking form: a bit disengaged, a tad too dismissive and, dare we say it ‘professorial’?

Indeed, what seemed to surprise if not shock the 40,000,000 or so in last night’s viewing audience, was not the effective performance of Mitt Romney but rather the lackluster performance of the incumbent president. Many pundits had predicted the president would trounce his opponent in the debate, possibly creating an insurmountable gulf between them with some 30 days remaining before the election.

In mid-summer we published our Top Political Buzzwords of the Presidential Campaign and found profound differences between the actual concerns of the public and the political narratives of both parties. Last night’s debate was consistent with our findings; there was no talk of the politics of fear the ‘war against women’ of even mention of ‘the 47%’.  However, the debate did point to profound difference in the belief systems of both parties, yet found enough common ground to produce distinct yet constructive and viable alternatives from which to choose.

One of the benefits of analyzing presidential debates, speeches and inaugural addresses for more than a decade, is the ability to make data-driven historical comparisons. These are especially effective when spotting trends and changes in direction. In 2007, spotted a man with a a truly captivating facility to turn an eloquent phrase.  This man warranted comparisons with Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream’ and Reagan’s ‘Tear Down This Wall’ speeches with his own ‘Yes, We Can!’ victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park.

However, it also tracked Obama’s sojourn to a more ‘inaccessible,’ sometimes even pedestrian speaking style. There were a number of turning points, a number of these occurring in 2010.

The numbers from last might’s debate bear this changing dynamic this out. For the President, the numbers tracked with his BP Gulf Oil Speech: long sentences, more passive voice, and a ninth-grade reading level (all of which can be signatures of considerable erudition). However, the numbers can also signify a less direct, less immediate communications style that differs considerably from the Obama to whom we were first introduced.

For Romney, his numbers were the reverse of the President (at least for the night):  shorter sentences, easier to understand, his seventh-grade reading level closer to the of Obama of Grant Park.


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