Tonight’s Debate: Frame the ‘Narrative,’ Decide the Outcome

Thus far this debate season, more important than any line uttered by the candidates or any folly committed by the moderator has been how political media chose to frame the ultimate outcome.

In general, genuinely undecided voters will not see these debates. The viewership almost certainly skews toward those who have long been committed to one or the other candidate. If a voter is still undecided at this point, he is likely quite disengaged from the electoral process, and hence not especially inclined to scrupulously watch in hopes of finally coming to a rational decision. While media are absolutely titillated by debates, dissecting every phrase and scrutinizing the candidates’ every stylistic quirk, most ordinary folks find them pretty boring. Such folks are not looking to fact-check claims or learn about actual policies; if they pay attention at all, they are probably only aiming to get a quick sense of who did “better” — who was “in command,” who looked “presidential,” and so forth.

I had a low-information undecided voter explain to me over the weekend that Obama lost his cool at the first debate two weeks ago in Denver, having been forced by Romney to defend his record. I retorted that in fact Obama was roundly criticized by his own supporters for coming off as disinterested and aloof — which would seem to contravene this individual’s thesis. The voter then revealed that he’d not actually seen the debate, but did “read stuff about it” afterward.

Notice how this person’s conception of the debate had been based entirely on the media’s framing — Obama was walloped; Romney scored a decisive victory. In other words, he unwittingly bought into their proffered “narrative,” which in turn heavily influenced his view of where the race currently stands. So, he was severely misled.

That’s not to say that Obama excelled and everyone missed it — he was bizarrely ineffectual at defending his own record, allowing Romney to distort the truth unchallenged. The president did not switch on his “Fired Up, Ready To Go!” self that was ever-present during the 2008 Democratic primaries. But neither did Obama suffer any kind of cataclysmic defeat. While Romney probably had the slight edge in terms of optics, from media accounts one would think the president made some massive, fatal gaffe or otherwise faltered in dramatic fashion.

What really happened, as foretold by Robert Wright in The Atlantic, was political media had been craving a change to the horserace “narrative.” At the time, Obama enjoyed a sizable polling advantage, and many projected he’d cruise to easy victory. Because a close race is more exciting to cover (and thus more generative of profits), journalists wanted the dynamics shaken up; this desire was obvious to me, being present in the University of Denver debate hall. Within 20 minutes of the Obama-Romney affair, Romney was declared the winner by narrative-shapers on Twitter. So it had been decreed: “Romney Comeback! A whole new ballgame! This is now anyone’s race!”

Media analysis was generally devoid of any objections to Romney’s various obfuscations — that he asserted he could somehow lower taxes by 20% across the board without raising the deficit; that he was suddenly celebrating aspects of the Obama healthcare law after spending months vociferously denouncing it; that the figure he cited regarding bankruptcies of Green Energy firms was straightforwardly false. Predictably, media instead fixated on his mannerisms and affect, which had doubtless been finely-crafted by PR gurus for the television-watching audience. Romney therefore “won” the debate — but your average undecided voter would have no idea that he propagated a multitude of untruths.

Similarly, Joe Biden was expected to win handily over Paul Ryan, so media preemptively readied themselves for this result. Key difference: Biden clearly *did* defeat Ryan, so the ensuing “narrative” was not entirely phony. Unlike Obama, Biden came off as a sincere, relatable man who could confidently make arguments for the Administration’s accomplishments in plain-speak. Among other clever digs, I thought his calling out Ryan for requesting stimulus funds was brilliantly executed. But Ryan also damaged himself independent of Biden. The debate might as well have ended after this exchange:

MS. RADDATZ: What — let me ask you what’s worse: war in the Middle East, another war in the Middle East, or a nuclear-armed Iran?

REP. RYAN: I’ll tell you what’s worse. I’ll tell you what’s worse.

MS. RADDATZ: Quickly.

REP. RYAN: A nuclear-armed Iran, which triggers a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. This is the world’s largest sponsor of — of terrorism. They’ve dedicated themselves –

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: That’s the only thing my –

REP. RYAN: – to wiping an entire country off the map. They call us the Great Satan. And if they get nuclear weapons, other people in the neighborhood will pursue their nuclear weapons as well.

MS. RADDATZ: Vice President Biden.

REP. RYAN: We can’t live with that.

To sum up — Paul Ryan apparently believes a new war in the Middle East is preferable to a nuclear-armed Iran. For one thing, this is total insanity. But even on a purely tactical level, I think Ryan overestimates the extent to which Americans are eager for further military intervention overseas. Appeasing the Romney campaign’s neoconservative advisers — including consummate war-hawks like Liz Cheney and John Bolton — does not strike me as a wise strategy for winning undecided voters’ hearts. Following Ryan’s incredible pro-war declaration, Biden expressed that Obama would be far more reticent to attack Syria or Iran. A strong case could be made that this distinction between the two tickets should trump all others in perceived importance.

I suspect that tonight we can anticipate some variation of an “Obama Redemption” narrative, whereby media will proclaim that the president learned from his mistakes, dusted off his shoulders, and put up an impressive performance. This will supposedly erase Romney’s gains from the first debate, and again make it “Anyone’s Race.” Additionally, the town-hall style — in which candidates ostensibly respond directly to voters’ queries — seems better suited to Obama’s communicative strengths. But we shall see.

About michaeltracey

Journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Follow me on Twitter at @mtracey.