Who Won the Final Debate?

So that’s it: the presidential debate season is over. Romney won the first, Obama took the second and...who won the third?

Some say the San Francisco Giants, playing opposite the candidates on Fox and earning a trip to the World Series. But the polls, here and here, say that Obama scored a decisive win over Romney in their last contest. That gives him a 2-1 edge in the series, a strong finish for the incumbent.

But did Obama really win on Monday night? No doubt, he had a good night. He was on the attack, defended himself assertively when Romney questioned his record and looked like a Commander in Chief behind his cobalt necktie. No naps, no scowls, no troubling pauses. But it is hard to say that the president crushed Romney on the issues. That’s because, on issue after issue, the candidates had basically the same perspectives.

Apart from some rhetorical contrasts, Obama and Romney both expressed wariness of deep intervention in the Libyan conflict, declared unwavering support for Israel, argued for strong sanctions against Iran in lieu of a premature military strike, set 2014 as a deadline for leaving Afghanistan and promised a tough trade policy with China.

The few real conflicts that arose in the debate were over leadership style and ineffable matters of the U.S. role in the world. Romney had two canned zingers for Obama:


- “I don’t see our influence growing around the world. I see our influence receding, in part because of the failure of the president to deal with our economic challenges at home.”

 - “We haven't dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.”

Here again Obama had good rejoinders, making Romney seem like a kid tossing pebbles against a president whose foreign policy record is basically solid. Obama won because none of Romney’s critiques dented his armor.

But will the debate matter? Will it move Obama’s poll numbers the way Romney’s surged after Obama’s sleepy performance in the first debate? Nielsen ratings aren’t out yet, but it’s a safe bet that viewership was relatively weak on Monday night. Still, news coverage of the debate can shape opinion for voters who did not tune in. In fact, political science research indicates that media coverage matters more than the debate itself in shaping viewers’ interpretations of debate winners and losers. Here is how John Sides sums up the data:

History suggests that the debates have rarely been game-changers, but if this year’s debates do move the polls, any credit (or blame) may belong to the media.

Several studies show this phenomenon. Here is one involving 698 college students conducted in October 2004 by Ray Pingree of Ohio State University:

All the students were exposed to a five-minute segment of the first presidential debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry. One group read no media coverage afterward. The other two groups read different versions of a 400-word postdebate news article about the segment, written specifically for the study.

The two articles were nearly identical, except for the framing.  In the policy frame, the article emphasized the candidates’ different positions on the issues.  In the game frame, the article emphasized candidate performance and character issues.

Even though they all were exposed to the same clip, viewers who read the media article with the game frame -- emphasizing who won the debate -- listed the fewest policy reasons in their description of the debate.

“Even though all the participants were exposed to the same clip of the debate, they took away very different messages depending on the media coverage,” Pingree said. “Postdebate coverage that uses the game frame undermines the ability of debates to get citizens reasoning about politics.”

Judging by the game framing of this lead article at CNN, Americans reading about the debate this morning will learn little about the candidates’ approaches to foreign policy and hear much about the theater of the evening.

In a banal gem of post-debate analysis, James Carville summed things up for CNN viewers: "Obama won the debate, but we don't know if Obama won the election tonight. We'll know that in a couple of weeks." Indeed.


Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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