Mitt Romney will probably lose the debate tonight. At least in pundit-world.
Why? Because Republicans almost always lose by a large majority there, even when they win in more substantial forums.
Everyone knows that Ronald Reagan handed Jimmy Carter his hat when they debated in Cleveland on October 28, 1980. But at the time, much of pundit-world concluded that Carter “won on content.” If the bulk of the country failed to appreciate Carter’s forensic mastery, it was because it was seduced by Reagan’s “style.”
In the first Reagan–Mondale debate in 1984, when the former vice president was less dull than usual, pundit-world dumped on Reagan and proclaimed a big win for his opponent. Yet post-debate polls showed that a majority of voters “said they found Reagan’s answers closer to their own thinking on the issues.” These voters did not go so far as to defy pundit-world’s assertion that Mondale was the better debater. They acquiesced in the media’s judgment that Mondale “won” the debate according to some ideal notion of verbal fencing floating around in Plato’s kingdom of forms. But the concession did not diminish Reagan’s victory: Only in pundit-world did the president “lose” the debate.
Pundit-world similarly miscalled the first debate between Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush in 1988, doing its best to spin Dukakis’s pedantic performance as a victory. “The pendulum swung last Sunday night” in favor of Dukakis, Time reported. The Democratic nominee
reasserted his voice at the first of two 90-minute showdowns — and while his overconfident debater’s style may be grating, he consistently displayed his mastery of both the forensic arts and substance. George Bush, while certainly the warmer and more user-friendly of the two, appeared at the same time to be hesitant, disconnected and too often on the defensive.
But although pundit-world worked hard to keep alive the “swinging-pendulum” idea of a close race, Bush would win it easily, taking 40 states and 53 percent of the popular vote.
Don’t expect tonight’s post-debate-spin to be any more objective. Look instead for one of these story-lines to gain traction:
If Romney does or says anything that remotely savors of indiscretion, expect to hear that “it’s hard, at this point, to see how the man wins in November . . .”
If Romney does okay, expect to hear that “he didn’t do what he needed to do to stop the president’s momentum . . .”
If Obama does okay, expect to hear how “once again at a high-stakes moment, Barack Obama came through with a dazzling performance that would have reduced Cicero himself to abject stammering . . .”
If Obama trips and falls flat on his face, expect to hear about the “wonderfully elegant way he picked himself up . . .”
What finally matters about a debate is not the verdict of the pundits but the majority’s application of Dr. Johnson’s five-minute rule. Johnson said that you could not stand beside Edmund Burke for five minutes while taking shelter from the rain without concluding that you were in the presence of an extraordinary man. In the same way, you can’t watch two men talk in the glare of klieg lights for 90 minutes without sensing that one of them is in some important way better than the other.
No commentator can possibly know, when tonight’s debate ends, which of the two candidates appears in the eyes of a majority of viewers to be the superior one.
Nor will instant polls and focus groups be much more revealing, in part because a person’s immediate reaction to the debate will not necessarily tally with the deeper impression that forms more slowly, after the sensory data have had time to sink in and cohere in whatever mental tribunal ultimate judgments are made. If at some level you know that the man you have just met is an extraordinary one, you might not yet know that you know it. Just as, with a book, one’s ideas about it may change when, in the days after one has closed it, certain parts of it appear more striking to one in retrospect than they did when one first took them in, so one’s ultimate impression of a debate may take time to ripen, and to impose itself on one’s surface consciousness.
Our apprehension of the power or force of a particular man is not wholly to be explained by reason or analysis, or by any psychological formula. A thousand imponderables influence our judgment. The media titans can no more pierce the mystery of leadership than you or I can.
— Michael Knox Beran, a lawyer and Contributing Editor of City Journal, is author, among other books, of Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.