Grading the Denver Donnybrook — Mark Halperin

The is Mark Halperin at his best. The entire write-up as good of a substantive critique of the debate performances you’ll find so I’m putting out the whole thing:

Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their standing in the election.


Style: Started strong, level, and unrattled — and strengthened as he went along. Spoke with a calm, pleasant demeanor, using an even tone, pace, and style he has rarely displayed in recent months (without the defensiveness, self-consciousness, or forced sincerity that he sometimes exhibits in interviews and on the stump). Despite perceptibly thorough debate prep, he did not seem too rehearsed. Was not intimidated by the event, the stakes, or his opponent. Took on the President without being strident, sarcastic, hostile, or disrespectful. He spoke clearly and often from the heart as well as the brain. When expressing concern for those Americans in need, he came across as a successful person who has committed himself to service rather than as a naive plutocrat. His slightly hoarse voice actually helped him, allowing him to modulate his words and eliminate a tendency to veer into an earnest whine. With awareness, checked his bad habit from the Republican nomination debates of protesting rule-bending or moderator decisions. Spent a lot of time looking directly at his rival. Was obviously well served by practice debates with his Obama stand-in, Ohio Senator Rob Portman; he maintained his composure, and was able to both listen and construct a tight rebuttal while Obama spoke.

Substance: Played a lot of defense on his tax cut, without ever really going beyond insistent denials that Obama’s charges weren’t true. Twisted some facts that will cause a hammering by truth squaders, but nothing more egregious than usual or enough to cause a firestorm or distract from his bottom-line debate win. Like the President, didn’t drill down beyond the generalities that have characterized this contest.

His worst moment: Evasive and slippery when dodging a question on entitlement reform.

His best moment: Challenged Obama on the deficit with confidence, moral purpose, and measured aggression.

The main thing: A performance that will both delight the Republican base and make undecided voters take note. Was the dominant figure on the stage on almost every exchange. Refreshingly, seemed to be naturally himself. He clearly studied hard, prepared carefully, got confident with all his answers, accepted some good advice, and was in a place where he could forget about all the distractions and pressures and just channel his best presidential self. Benefited from his underdog status in the pre-debate expectations game by coming off as ever bit the equal of the incumbent in style and knowledge of the job. Avoided the verbal and stylistic tics that have been a turnoff in the past. Got a full chance to make the argument on the economy that he believes is the basis for victory. No magic single moment or moments to punctuate a clear win, but Romney and his aides can have a reasonable hope that Denver will move some poll numbers, if voters now see Romney as a leader, not an awkward bumbling rich man.

Grade: A-



Style: Displayed many of the traits that have earned him a reputation as not particularly good at debating (too cool, too ponderous, irritable when challenged). Seemed to be distracted by the drama of the event itself, rather than focusing on the task at hand or the job in the White House. Showed respect for his opponent throughout, and tried to appear congenial. But looked tired and seemed a little twitchy and nervous; lacked fire and inspiration.

Substance: Failed to address the realities of the flaws in his administrative record and the lack of specifics in his future agenda. As he does on the campaign trail, spent considerably more time and vigor denouncing Romney’s ideas than trying to present his own. Reminding viewers of the mess he inherited four years ago, both at the beginning and at the end of the evening, sounded defensive.

His worst moment: He defended his deficit record by blaming George Bush and claiming credit for spending cuts, then wandered around the topic, getting uncharacteristically lost in the weeds.

His best moment: An extended colloquy that forced Romney to repeatedly defend his tax proposal, eating up a lot of time.

The main thing: Surprisingly, seemed more nervous and tentative than his challenger, who was in his first ever general election debate. Was frequently scattered and uncertain, almost passive. At other times, tired and disengaged. Played defense more than Romney and seemed to cede the agenda to the challenger, failing to strike on many of the Republican’s greatest vulnerabilities (which his campaign efficiently attacks regularly). Unlike his rival, rarely spoke directly to the American people; rather, he sometimes seemed to be addressing a think tank luncheon. Wasn’t blown out but gave off no sense of energy, no sense that he actually wants to fight for his job or is eager to win over new supporters. Even when he scored substantive points on issues such as taxes and Medicare, he was so sedated that a viewer could be forgiven for not registering the victory. Whether he was rusty, overconfident, or both, whether his staff and prep team were reluctant to guide or correct him during rehearsal, his aides know full well, he needs to do better at the next debate. Still ahead and stronger in the Electoral College, but the media pressure now on him will sustain at least through the rematch.

Grade: B-


  1. Mark Casper
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink | Reply

    So to paraphrase Halperin … Obama was awful, he failed at every level, he was didn’t speak to his actual audience, He was nervous, tentative, scattered, uncertain, passive, tired, disengaged, no sense of energy, no sense he wants to fight for his job, sedated, rusty, overconfident, reluctant, … His grade? a B-????????????

    • Posted October 4, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink | Reply

      That grade might be a little generous but it is not that far off the mark either in my opinion. While Obama likely failed to appeal to persuadable voters, I don’t think he committed unpardonable gaffes that switched people from his camp to Romney’s camp. It was a huge missed opportunity much like George W Bush in his first debate with John Kerry. That debate didn’t improve Bush’s standing but it also didn’t drop his standing. It pulled Kerry up to even with him but then Bush recovered and went on to put the race away. That is probably what Obama is hoping to repeat. I think the grade reflects last night not being fatal for Obama but the need for a course correction in debate performance.

      • ed
        Posted October 4, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        Keith, the event last night and Romney’s obvious success is part and parcel of the “intangibles” I spoke to you about some time ago. I believe I stated that poll results should not entirely determine Romney’s messaging and campaign focus. I think, you, going back a few weeks now, emphasized a more poll driven direction to Romney’s strategy. To be sure you did not state poll results were dispositive, you merely felt Romney should change his messaging. I disagreed. I noted, in response to your position, that once people see Romney standing next to Obama, and debating with the President on the same stage, all Romney has to do is appear presentable. My rationale was, and is still, that Romney’s dedication to the fundamentals of campaigning, the “blocking and tackling” will put him in a position where he can exploit the weaknesses of his opponent. By my analysis Obama’s biggest weakness are his (1) his ideas, (2) his record, (3) inexperience in a campaign against a well funded opponent who does not present an easy target for “dirty tricks”. This makes for a great sports analogy. My history in sports, led me to ascertain the strengths and weakness of the Obama campaign more on a “gut level”. My feeling all along has been if you match Obama on the ground game, be indefatigable in your turn out operations and fund raising, that over a long period of time you will begin to exhaust Obama’s campaign because: Obama’s campaign runs on cliche’s and he wins elections by treating vulnerable opponents to “dirty tricks”. That’s Obama’s campaign history going back to his Chicago days. But once the cliche’s wear down and there are no dirty tricks to be fired off at his opponent, Obama is in a place he has NO EXPERIENCE in: defending the left’s redistributive social justice ideas (on his own, with no teleprompter) and his record. This is exactly where we wanted him!!! Romney has “tied up” (jujitsu) the Champ in every battleground, and Obama can’t seem to shake him. Once more, Obama now seems exhausted and scared. Romney’s can now exploit the fundamentals he has put in place. The fact that Romney was able to slap this cipher around in the debate is a function of the stupidity of Obama’s guiding ideas and the weakness of his record.

        It is obvious now that Romney should not change his strategy. Assessing poll data is helpful in tailoring a strategy, but it should never take the place of strategy. I was my assessment that you went a little too far in letting poll hermeneutics take over solid assessment and execution of strategy. Maybe you were getting a bit nervous a few weeks back. You still may be correct!

      • Posted October 4, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

        Ed I love your comments and they have been very insightful. However, I’m not sure you are characterizing my critiques accurately. I don’t often criticize the Romney campaign but when I do it is always substantively. One of the purposes of my blog is to debunk the misleading polls so that people do not layer in criticisms of strategy and message based on inaccurate polls. So I kind of resent you repeatedly mischaracterizing my few critiques as poll driven. Romney’s short-coming on messaging is before last night he had yet to make the compelling case why the country should hire him (thus far he really had just been the not-Obama candidate). In Romney’s corporate speak this is the longest job interview of his life and all he was doing is telling everyone he can the job better (a losing interview strategy) when he needs to demonstrate he can do the job better (a winning interview strategy). Last night he demonstrated he can do a better job in the role of President. Everyone’s excitement today is that message is very new compared to what we were seeing on the stump and in interviews. You have a great many insights and I think you are seeing the race correctly. However, I simply do not think you are accurately representing my positions. Thanks for visiting.

      • Mark Casper
        Posted October 4, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        I want to make sure I am clear about my opinion here. There were 20 televised Presidential debates before last night. This was the single most one sided debate ever. It even eclipses the Clinton town hall debate in 1992. Bob Dole did better in 1996 than this fiasco. Romney was almost perfect.

  2. wholefoodsrepublican
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink | Reply

    grade inflation for Obama…after all he gave us inflation of food and gas prices

  3. Mike
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink | Reply

    B- for Obama????????? what?????? Is he drinking the media kool-aid??????

    Romney A+ Obama F-

  4. ed
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink | Reply

    We cant continue assigning gentleman’s “Bs” Obama was C-/D+….

  5. Kimberly
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink | Reply

    agree with a “C” for Obama, but truly believe he was playing “prevent defense” more than actually demonstrating he is the choice for the presidency. Romney was projecting a much more “presidential” candidate; but remember as well- there is still a plethera of ammunition for Romney, whereas Obama still has no record to run on.

    • Posted October 4, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink | Reply

      I think this is right. Halperin had some grade inflation for Obama but his write-up was on point. If you look at it from polling impact:
      Obama only scores an A if he gives Romney no ground since the challenger usually gains in the polls simply by being on stage with the President. That is simply the reality of Presidential contests.
      Obama gets a B if he holds Romney to a 2-point bump which I think is the bump when both candidates show up for the debate.
      Obama gets a C if he fails to do damage to his opponent and lets his opponent dominate the moment which is what I think occurred last night. This probably translates into 4-5 points in the polls.
      Obama gets a D if he does damage to himself and lets his opponent take over command of the race. Would be a 6-8 point hit in the polls.
      An F debate performance from Obama would mean he seriously damages his re-election prospects likely giving Romney a 5-10-point Romney lead coming out of the debate. This didn’t happen yesterday.

  6. John Fisher
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink | Reply

    This debate clearly takes the cake in terms of lopsided results, even surpassing the classic Ford/Carter debacle. To compare this with the first Bush/Kerry debate is perposterous. Likewise the grades noted by Halperin. It can only be graded as A and F. Romney gave one of the great debate performances I have seen and Obama flat out gave the worst.

  7. Posted October 4, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I would have given the President an all around D+/C- . From a pure debate stand point he was off putting and looked arrogant and annoyed. He acted as if he was the smartest man in the room and how dare anyone challenge him. From a grasp of his own job description he was just horrible. Romney took on the roll of incumbent who takes the time to school the guy who wants his job on EXACTLY what the job is and why he is wrong. Obama acted like he was running for an open seat not being the President.

    He truly devalued and damaged that aura of his presidency. He looked small, beaten and disengaged. EVERYTHING a president cannot afford to look like. The best anaology for those that know it is the Tyson vs. Douglas fight. Tyson thought he was unbeatable. His opponents were tough and he beat them soundly. No one could stop him until he took one to the head and down he went. Last night, Obama was dropped to the mat several time. Yes he beat the count and made it to the judges score cards. But he will not be looked upon as invincible anyone. Romney didn’t go out and “win the debate” he didn’t “perform well” he went out and did what NO ONE though the could do….BEAT THIS PRESIDENT SO BADLY that even the MSNBC folks were FORCED to admit it was an outright beating. That is what earns Romney a solid A and Obama a below average grade of D+/C-.

    Now for the polls to catch up, we will have to wait about a week, probably after Ryan goes in against Biden to find out if he moved the needle. My gut says Obama did not lose anyone from his party willing to switch over to Romney (undoubtedly a few undecideds did). BUT BUT BUT what last night did and we will not and cannot know until election day is…I think Obama just parked a good chunk of his followers at home on election day. They wont vote against him, they wont tell a pollster they arent supporting him but on November 6 they will just no vote. That is the real damage that Romney MAY have landed last night. A giant freaking needle throw the enthusiasm bubble of the Dems…..because what fired them up at the convention? CLINTON not Obama.

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