So as a former debater in college and high school, I suppose I should be somewhat heartened that apparently debates really do matter for presidential elections.
I have noticed a lot of commentators have criticized Obama for his performance in the presidential debate, for various things-not bringing up the 47%, not attacking Romney’s taxes, etc. I think these criticisms misunderstand how debates work. The nature of time-limited debates is that you can’t attack everything about your opponent-there’s an infinite amount of potential attacks, you have a limited amount of time, and if you spread yourself too thin, then none of our arguments are that effective.
Instead, you have to stick to one primary offensive attack and focus on developing that attack, while answering the really important arguments for the other side. Romney did quite a good job of this-his main offensive argument was that Obama would raise taxes on businesses in a bad economy, while he would lower them. Romney was also careful to be very efficient in answer all of Obama’s arguments in his allotted time, so it didn’t look like he was omitting any issues that Obama discussed.
While I thought Obama did well on particular issues (for example, he explained the good wonkish argument against Romney’s health plan very well), Obama did not have a particularly strong offensive argument once Romney “clarified” that his tax plan would be revenue neutral and not add to taxes on the middle class.* Nor did Obama have a particularly strong response to the argument (which Obama himself had made in 2010) that now was not a good time to raise taxes on anyone. In fact, Obama did not even answer this argument and in general was not as careful as Romney was to answer all of the other side’s primary arguments.
Obama looked weak because he didn’t have a strong offensive argument on the economy, the primary issue of the debate (and the election), and no amount of distracting attacks on the 47%, etc. would save him from his weakness on the primary issues in the debate.**
*whether that is possible is beside the point in a presidential debate where the audience can’t call for evidence at the end of the debate-in the type of debate I did in high school and college, both sides have to read evidence (usually in the forms of studies or quotes from experts) to support their positions, and the judge usually reviews the evidence at the end of the round.
**I won’t try to analyze the mannerisms, etc. since those were not particularly important in the type of debate I did. They may have exacerbated Obama’s problems, but were not the primary cause as I see them.