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.

  • Levon Mkrtchyan

    Thank you for one of the most interesting analyses I’ve read to date!

  • Bengie

    We’ll see if Obama ends up using any of those notes he took last month.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I’ll tell you what it’s really about: Sausage or Pepperoni?

  • Michael Tracey

    You’re welcome!

  • Gus Snarp

    I’ve been convinced for a while now that the swing in the polls couldn’t possibly come from people watching the debates, but only from people getting a constant stream of “Romney trounced Obama in the debate” from the media.

  • Gus Snarp

    I’ve been convinced for a while now that the swing in the polls couldn’t possibly come from people watching the debates, but only from people getting a constant stream of “Romney trounced Obama in the debate” from the media.

  • Marco

    Very good post. Probably one of the best analysis of the past weeks events I have read so far.

  • Kstarlite

    This too, was how I saw the Biden/Ryan debate, but it seems the neo’s viewed Biden as rude, childish, disrespectful etc.  My question to the ones I am personal with was “Did you think he was meeting up with him for afternoon tea? Or were you expecting Biden to nurse him through it?”   

    Biden is a seasoned, experience politician.  He’s been in the game too long and his general know-how put Ryan’s lack of tenure experience to shame.  What is second nature to Biden is just a classroom to the running VP. Everything just rolled right out of Bidens mouth, unrehearsed.. it was as if he …..  wait for it…..  was there to experience it or something! 

    I have to agree that he did get him good when criticized about putting the stimulus though… Ryan was quite on the spot there. 

    These two have been here before, it would seem.

    Biden certainly “won” that debate, no question about it. 

    Although I also have to agree with you when you suggest that this isn’t going to do anything more than appease the already convinced, not the undecided. 

    I got my sample ballot in the mail yesterday for Florida and I spent much of the afternoon and evening researching some of the new state and federal amendments they want to push through.  

    All I can say now it… happy voting to everyone, and thanks for an awesome view of this debate. (Living in FL, I am surrounded by the Republicans and “Romney/Ryan” signs in 70% of the front yards, I was beginning to think I was the only one who saw it that way!)

  • Burke n’ Kirk

    Good article, but wrong to say-> “Paul Ryan apparently believes a new war in the Middle East is preferable to a nuclear-armed Iran. “. 
    The point Paul Ryan was making is totally missed here. No one contests the fact that America is tired of war and it’s cost in lives, blood and treasure. His point was we need to continue to take a principled stand against Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons…this doesn’t mean “boots on the ground”  or “protracted 10-year war” as we’re embroiled in in Afghanistan…it means not sending mixed messages to our enemies.  People scoff at this, but its a real tangible position.  The Administration’s story does not always meet up with reality (as we’ve witnessed in Libya). The need to end the war in Afghanistan is real and necessary, but contrast this with the event in Libya and we have a problem. An Administration that is committed to ending the war in Afghanistan, must also be committed to protecting our Embassies abroad – even if it’s not the narrative they want to portray.  

  • Larry Meredith

    I don’t think I’ll ever get over “binders full of women”

  • Gus Snarp

    BTW, you make the statement that: “In general, genuinely undecided voters will not see these debates,” and you lay out your argument for why you think that’s true, and I tend to agree that it’s the media that candidates are trying to win with the debate, so that the media narrative becomes about them winning and that’s how the debates sway the polls and the voters. I think you make a decent case for it. But at the same time, “In general, genuinely undecided voters will not see these debates,” is a factual claim. Are there any polls or surveys that back that up? We ought to be able to answer this question with data, rather than conjecture.