As we almost universally agreed that Mitt Romney “won” the first presidential debate last week, we almost universally forgot that the event is supposed to be about substance, not style. But we all–especially PR people–understand that our emotions are often more influenced by images than by words. This is why there was far less discussion about the facts and policies presented by the candidates and far more discussion about body language and appearances.
There was little question that Barack Obama didn’t bring his “A” game to the debate on Tuesday. Romney supporters, after several weeks of missteps and widening polls, were re-energized. Obama supporters, after seeing gains in key swing states, began to worry again. But take heart or caution: The debates are a three-round playoff series and, as in the president’s favorite game, there are plenty of rebounds.
Please excuse the mixed sports metaphors but with a month to go before Election Day, there are still a few more innings to play. All eyes will be on Hofstra and the candidates on October 16 and again in Florida on October 22. As an added bonus, a vice presidential debate takes place this coming Wednesday. We and the TV pundits will again analyze who “won” and who “lost,” and we’re likely to spend far less time on the issues and far more time on likeability, mistakes and who delivered the better “zingers.”
I don’t blame the times we live in for this seemingly shallow approach to electing a president. Certainly we know that images have often outweighed words since the dawn of art, and then photography, and then television. PR and media pros understand how to use images to their best advantage. We know the story of the 1960 debates: those who listened on the radio thought Richard Nixon won while those who watched on TV preferred Kennedy. And in 1984, Walter Mondale was considered to have handily beaten Ronald Reagan in the first debate, yet there was no President Mondale. Because of or despite the debates, no one will have won or lost until November 6. Your thoughts?