Blarney, Benghazi, and Binders: Takeaways from the Second Presidential Debate
The debate rematch saw a familiar Governor Romney matched up against a newly invigorated President Obama. There was a lot of testosterone in the room; the two men stalked around the stage and each other doing their best to take up space and intimidate the other debater. Romney walked stiffly, visibly tense, uneasy in his body, like an arthritic flamingo. Obama prowled like an angry, predatory cat, waiting to pounce, and when he did, the effect was devastating on the subject of the recent attack on US diplomats in Libya:
. . . the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That's not what we do. That's not what I do as president, that's not what I do as Commander in Chief.
On balance, President Obama narrowly dominated Governor Romney, but Romney survived just fine. Except for the ‘offensive’ moment – and one other that may prove more important in the run up to the election: the ‘binder’ moment that revealed Romney to be an old-school, unreconstructed sexist:
And — and so we — we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet.
I went to a number of women's groups and said, "Can you help us find folks," and they brought us whole binders full of women.
The ‘binders full of women’ image may haunt the candidate; it certainly played well on Twitter and Facebook. An instant Twitter handle for Romney’s binders immediately had over 14,000 followers. And a “Binders full of women” Facebook page has more than 250,000 likes.
Beyond the highlights, what are the takeaways for those of us passionate about communications?
Beware displaying too much testosterone, not enough warmth. Romney is not the warmest of candidates in public settings anyway; usually Obama is the better connector. But in this case Obama was trying so hard to make his mark that the whole evening was frosty and tense. A smart move for either candidate would have been to get in a little more humor to defuse the tension. We like our candidates to take charge, but we also want them to be decent and play by the rules.
Focus on the topic, don’t abuse the moderator. Romney was more guilty of this faux pas than Obama; the Governor risked looking like a political McEnroe, putting more energy into trying to game the system than into answering the questions. In these situations, you should play big, not petty, and put your focus on the answers, not on the ref calls.
Don’t forget the audience. The two candidates were so busy fighting each other that they forgot, for the most part, to speak to the audience in ways that go beyond simply getting the question and moving on to a general answer. It’s a huge missed opportunity, because had we seen either candidate genuinely caring about one of the audience, we would have, by extension, felt like he cared for us too. Instead, both candidates treated the audience like props.
Obama in particular muffed an opportunity for a strong answer when a questioner said that times had been tough for him over the last four years and how would the President, if he had another term, make it better? Obama was both vague and failed to connect warmly with the audience member. It was his weakest moment.
Beyond that, neither candidate addressed the television audience directly, something that Vice President Biden used with great effectiveness. If you have an audience, don’t neglect it, wherever it is.
Don’t try to fool us with the ‘real American’ anecdotes. Ever since Ronald Reagan introduced us to American heroes at his State of the Union addresses, candidates and Presidents have used the device to show that they understand us common folk. That genre is now hopelessly worn out. It’s fake, it doesn’t convince, and it’s time to lose it. Tell us real stories, sure, but forget the pseudo anecdotes about people you’ve meant for 22 seconds on a rope line somewhere. Doris and Jim don’t believe it, we don’t believe it, and it’s time to drop it. I’ll give Obama a pass on the one anecdote about the mother in Aurora, because he apparently did spend time with her and her son grieving, but both candidates were guilty of the fake variety of the ‘real person’ anecdote, and they are offensive.
And for heaven’s sake lose the admonishing forefinger! One of my least favorite gestures is the admonishing forefinger, and both Romney and Obama rarely went without it in their answers. It’s a gesture that harkens back to scoldings we received in childhood, and we don’t like it. It’s a poor way to speak to anybody, but especially undecided voters. Instead, open your hand and gesture using your palms. That builds trust, done right, instead of hostility.