October 04, 2012


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Interviewed by Andy Hirsch

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Chris Ellis, assistant professor of political science, analyzes the first presidential debate.

Question: How would you grade each candidate, and who do you feel came out on top?

Answer: The conventional wisdom so far is that Romney "won" the debate pretty handily, and I think in this case that's probably right. Neither candidate had a particularly memorable performance — there were no one-liners that we'll remember five years from now, and no one got caught making an embarrassing mistake — but Romney seemed more focused, more passionate and more at ease talking about big ideas than Obama did.

Obama also did have a bit of that 'I don't want to be here" look, and the result was that Romney as a person came off at least as relatable, caring and personable as Obama did. Given that one of Romney's consistent big deficits in the polls is his "likability" compared to Obama's, that may be the most important aspect of the debate. 

Q: Do you see the incumbent as having an advantage or disadvantage in a debate?

A: Historically, challengers on average come out of debates looking a little bit better than when they came in. There are a number of different reasons for this, but the most important of these is probably that for many undecided voters, this is the first time that they get to see the challenger speak at length in his own words. While American debates are not heavy on policy specifics (and last night's debate fit that trend), the format does give voters a chance to see the challenger apart from sound bites and the negative image that his opponent has painted of him. In addition, the debate allows the challenger to be seen on what appears to be an equal stage with the President, and gives him the opportunity to look "presidential" — which the sitting President, obviously, has been doing for some time. 

Q: What impact do you expect debates to have on voters? 

A: In general, debates don't matter that much to the eventual outcome. The candidate in the lead going into the debates is almost always in the lead heading out of the debates. And it's rare to find a case where a debate might even be plausibly considered to have changed an outcome (even the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate of 1960 falls well short of this standard). One exception might be the Reagan-Carter debate in 1980, in which Reagan performed so much better than Carter that it may have reshaped the race to some extent. But given the economy and other factors, it's hard to imagine a scenario where Reagan loses that election anyway. While Romney won this one in my view, the win was not so decisive that we can expect it to be a "game changer" in terms of radically redefining how swing voters view these two candidates. Debates don't change the minds of that many swing voters, and there aren't that many undecided voters left to begin with.

One effect that might be more important is that I expect that Republicans are more enthusiastic about the election now than they were before the first debate. There was starting to become a sense of inevitability on the Republican side about the outcome of this election, and strong Republicans (who were not that keen on Romney to begin with) began to feel that he just wasn't the kind of candidate that was going to be able to defeat Obama in this climate. There was even some discussion about conservative-leaning superPACs pulling money from the Romney campaign and directing it to down-ballot races. All of that talk should subside in the near-term. This debate gave Republicans a reason to feel good about their candidate. Since elections in our current highly polarized climate are at least as much about mobilizing core supporters to vote than it is about persuading undecided voters, any surge in enthusiasm among Republicans that is not shared by Democrats may turn out to be a pretty big deal. 

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