Media Trainers Score the Final Debate Between Obama and Romney

While President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney exchanged their own verbal bayonet jabs with one another during the final presidential debate on Oct. 22, the real communication issue was leadership and message control.

Who communicated more like a leader? Who better controlled the message? Communications coach Karen Friedman of Karen Friedman Enterprises says it was close, though there were still communication differences.

"The final debate was a bit of a sleeper in comparison to the others—both candidates appeared well-rehearsed and more practiced than ever before," says Friedman.

Andy Gilman, CEO of CommCore Consulting, says the sitting president always has an advantage on a foreign policy debate, which Obama took advantage of by opening strongly by covering his foreign policy accomplishments.

Friedman says that while both candidates continued to correct each other, they seemed to agree with one another more than in the past debates. Gilman agrees, saying that it was less contentious of a debate because Romney and his staff decided, content-wise, to agree with more of Obama’s positions in this debate than they had in prior debates. 

Both Romney and Obama knew they would have to bridge from foreign policy back to the economy during the debate. "Romney, as expected, bridged back to the economy for his last chance to remind a huge audience of what he thinks separates him from the President," says Friedman. 

Gilman says body language was not an issue like it was during the first two debates. "Both Obama and Romney looked at one another often when making points, and each had normal and subtle gestures, unlike some of the finger pointing in the second debate," says Gilman. 

Debate Shortcomings: 

Friedman says Romney, who looked down more frequently, smirked and appeared to constantly be grinning at the President.

In terms of their messaging, Friedman says neither candidate really spoke to the everyday person; they spoke about them. "Neither candidate fully explained how these issues affect those watching and what they really mean to the listener. A communicator’s job is to engage and facilitate understanding. In that department, both failed," says Friedman. 

Successful Rhetorical Techniques: 

Gilman says both candidates used some smart rhetorical techniques. "What skilled debaters do—and they each did it twice during the debate—is use enumeration for their points to keep viewers focused and engaged," says Gilman.  

The second thing they both did well was to repeat key phrases. Obama repeated “Commander in Chief” several different times; Romney discussed the state of nuclear power in Iran multiple times. 

In the end, though Romney dominated the first debate, Obama score higher in the second and third debates (and Joe Biden edged out Paul Ryan in the vice-presidential debate), say our experts.

Gilman says the real question, of course, is whether any of their style and substance points influenced the undecided voters. 

Follow Bill Miltenberg:

Andy Gilman and Karen Friedman will share "Media Training Do’s and Don'ts" at PR News' November 30
Media Relations Conference in Washington, D.C.  




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  • cara

    It makes me wonder how expert the experts are when they three Biden won his debate and the President won two of the three. If that were true, than the President, not Romney, would be gaining in the polls. I’m voting for Gary Johnson so this is not a partisan view.

  • Stephanie Roberson B

    Clearly there are lots of variables that determine who wins a presidential race, with the debates being only one piece of the puzzle. I think both candidates have strong debate skills—you don’t make it to the presidential race without them. I think Americans are smarter than the pundits think—we do want to hear about the issues and we don’t like the squabbling and interrupting that “experts” deem as winning debate tactics. I was surprised to see that Obama was coached to “talk down” to Romney (aircraft carrier comment) and that Romney did not seize the opportunity to discuss the Libya consulate terrorist attack on 9-11-12. Content matters as much as style.