President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney squared off in their first debate tonight. This debate is an easy one to call: Romney won in a landslide, while Obama appeared flatfooted, tired, and somewhat detached.
As a result, the president’s poor performance will almost inevitably change the existing media narrative from “Romney, the inevitable loser” to “Will Obama blow his lead?”
Below, you’ll find 11 brief takeaways from Wednesday night’s debate. My focus here is on image and delivery; before you dismiss such an analysis as shallow for not focusing on content, it’s important to realize that undecided and low-information voters consistently use such measurements to make their voting decisions.
Here are 11 takeaways from tonight:
1. Romney looked prosecutorial; Obama looked professorial.
2. Romney exhibited strong energy without appearing overly aggressive; Obama bordered on soporific, as if this was just another daily briefing.
3. Romney played offense; Obama remained on defense through much of the night.
4. Romney looked Obama in the eye during attacks; Obama addressed the camera—when he wasn’t looking nowhere in particular instead.
5. Romney spoke in a confident and fluid style; Obama’s speech was cluttered with dozens (if not hundreds) of distracting “uhhhs” and “ummms.”
6. Romney delivered his messages with clarity, such as when he repeatedly said, “I will not raise taxes on middle class families.” Obama buried his messages within longwinded answers, reducing their impact.
7. Romney looked attentive but confident in the split screen “reaction” shots; Obama looked more conciliatory and agreeable, even saying “I’m sorry” at one point.
8. Romney wore a red tie with dark stripes that “popped” on the screen; Obama wore a solid royal blue tie that blended in with the purple background and reinforced a sense of fatigue.
9. Romney appeared more empathetic and understanding of the problems of middle class Americans; Obama prioritized information over personal connection, even saying, “we have some data.”
10. Romney opened strong; Obama squandered his opening by congratulating his wife on their anniversary for the first 20 seconds. (Incidentally, when did this become a pro forma part of high-profile political events?)
11. Romney used politically potent buzzwords like “Solyndra” and “ObamaCare;” Obama failed to use politically potent phrases such as “George W. Bush,” “RomneyCare,” “Bain,” or “47 percent.”
It’s important to point out that as flat as President Obama was tonight, he didn’t have a particularly “bad” single moment; nor did Mitt Romney have a strong one-liner that will become a memorable debate moment.
And President Obama did do a few things right. He made some important points, such as when he repeatedly hectored Gov. Romney for failing to release a more specific economic plan. But debates aren’t solely about delivering quality content. At least equally as important, candidates have to connect on a personal level with viewers—particularly undecided and low-information voters—and Romney did a much more effective job of that tonight.
Still, don’t mistake this analysis for a prediction of what’s going to happen in November. The two presidential candidates will debate two more times this month, and a strong showing by President Obama and/or a weak showing by Mitt Romney will inevitably change the media narrative yet again.
Tonight’s Grades: Governor Mitt Romney A; President Barack Obama: C
Brad Phillips is the president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He blogs at Mr. Media Training, where a version of this story first appeared. Follow him on Twitter @MrMediaTraining.