Skip Global Navigation to Main Content

After First Debate, Incumbent Faces Re-energized Challenger

By Bridget Hunter | Staff Writer | 04 October 2012
Mitt Romney and President Obama shaking hands (AP Images)

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama shake hands at the University of Denver on October 3.

Washington — On October 3, with fewer than 1,000 people in attendance, the Republican and Democratic nominees to the U.S. presidency faced off in the first of three scheduled debates.

The true audience for the 90-minute discussion at the University of Denver in Colorado was much larger, with television viewership estimated at 60 million in the United States and 200 million worldwide.

Over the course of the evening, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and President Obama were each trying to win the votes of U.S. citizens who have not yet decided whom to support.

In a wide-ranging exchange focused on economic issues, each candidate faced a slightly different challenge. According to political analysts, Romney, as the challenger lagging in recent polls, needed to project leadership, carry himself with authority, and refute his elitist image. For Obama, the incumbent president and apparent front-runner at this point in the race, the challenge was to avoid mistakes and make the case for keeping his job.

In the morning after the debate, it appeared that both men succeeded, but pundits generally assessed Romney’s performance as the stronger in this debate.

“I think Romney did himself considerable good during the first debate,” William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution said in a posting to the institution’s website late on October 3. “I would not be surprised to learn that a majority of the American people think he won it outright. At the very least, he vastly exceeded expectations.”

Galston, now a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, is a former policy adviser to President Clinton and other presidential candidates.

In recent U.S. political history, the challenger has tended to perform well in the opening debate, in part due to certain inherent advantages. For instance, in the 2004 presidential debates, challenger John Kerry was widely perceived to have trounced incumbent President George W. Bush.

Typically, a challenger has more time to devote to debate preparation, while the incumbent has to balance prep time against the demands of a job widely acknowledged to be one of the world’s most difficult. In addition, an incumbent president has become accustomed to some level of deference during four years in the nation’s highest office. The challenger, in contrast, typically achieves nomination only after surviving a grueling series of debates with other presidential hopefuls within the political party.

In the midst of parsing the fine points of tax cuts and economic projections, one particular moment in the October 3 debate stood out for viewers and took on a life of its own in social media.

When Romney, with the disclaimer “I like PBS, I love Big Bird,” pledged to cut federal funding for public broadcasting, he triggered a virtual firestorm on Twitter as the fans of the popular Sesame Street character leapt to its defense.

PBS is a private, nonprofit corporation whose members are America’s public television stations. These stations, supported by public funds and private donations, are noncommercial and provide educational programming to audiences in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa.

Twitter reported that, at the peak of the response, users were posting 17,000 tweets per minute mentioning Big Bird. A spoof Twitter account, @firedbigbird, quickly won thousands of followers.

The next televised debate, between vice presidential contenders Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, will take place October 11 at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.

Obama and Romney next will meet October 16 in a town hall–style format at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Their final debate, this one focused on foreign affairs, is scheduled for October 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.

Big Bird (AP Images)

An enraged subset of debate viewers flooded social media in defense of Big Bird, a popular children's television character.