We were at my sister's house with two generations watching the first of three scheduled presidential debates. The rest of my siblings kept in touch via telephone and texting.
Although this debate had not generated nearly the excitement in our family as the one held four years ago on Sept. 26, 2008--when Republican nominee John McCain and Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama came to Ole Miss in a faceoff--it was still a historic benchmark. Who would have thought then that Obama would be edging his way to a possible second term four years later? Certainly not my 88-year-old mother, who alternately wanted Obama to win in November 2007 but feared for his safety if he did. Today, at 92 and still going strong, she is still proud of the president for many reasons, despite limited improvements in the economy since he took office. She views standing still as being a whole lot better than going further backward.
She likes, for instance, how President Obama seems to remain cool under pressure; how he speaks with the oratory skills reminiscent of the black educated elite that makes her generation proud and not envious; how he is still clean-cut while graying from age and wisdom; how he represents a partial fulfillment of the Dream speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963; and, how he just loves his wife and kids. She argues that he didn't fare so well during the debate this time around because his mind was on his anniversary more so than politics. She gives the Secret Service truly high marks for protecting him throughout the first four years and wants him to win a second term. A true fan, and near disciple, she stops whatever she is doing and listens anytime his name is mentioned anywhere.
The only problem with watching debates with my mom is that you can't talk throughout because she will hush you immediately so she can hang on to every word, and then analyze better than any commentator what was said and its effect on the voting population. This enforced "All Quiet" policy was particularly hard for me, because how else would President Obama be able to hear me yell at the television screen: "Stop using the rope-a-dope strategy and come out swinging! Can't you tell from that mad glint in Romney's eyes and smirking smile that Mitt came to play!?" As one commentator put it, Obama came to make polite conversation with a man armed with a chainsaw.
Immediately following the debate, not just Republican backers, but pundits of every stripe declared a Romney victory. Few called it toss-up, but I am convinced that it was. An underdog's bias clouded the outcome. Let me explain.
When Barack Obama and John McCain went head-to-head four years ago, they were both presidential contenders. The outcome of their debates was determined more objectively. Unfortunately, when a presidential debate involves a sitting president and a challenger, rather than two equal contenders, then more favorable weight is given to the person vying for the job due to an underdog's advantage.
We can see how this advantage plays itself out when two ordinary people are in a fight, but one is smaller than the other. We root for the underdog and consider the larger one the bully, independent of whether he or she started the fight. Once the fight is on, each side may throw the same number of blows that have the same impact, but to most observers the smaller person made a grander showing of strength. Thus, the underdog has to dominate only half the bouts to be declared a clear-cut winner.
There is no better illustration of this than presidential debates. As a contender, Ronald Reagan needed to say little more than "there you go again" and wait for President Jimmy Carter's mounting chagrin and the audience's increased laughter to be declared the decisive winner in the 1980 presidential debate.
Just before the debate, a CNN interview with Michelle Obama and her brother, Craig Robinson, calmed my jitters. I was pumped for an Obama decisive victory. To be fair, neither Craig nor Michelle promised this, not even in subtext messaging. But they were just so calm and positive and high-road taking--and with all the foot-in-mouth disease that Romney had exhibited in the past--well, I just knew that this would be a first-round knock-out--KO'ed by Romney's own words, if nothing else. He could not duck, bob, weave, run or hide from those. He was now inside the ropes with a quick jabber with words.
Unfortunately, throughout the debate, President Obama's refusal to look at Romney and reluctance to challenge him on untruths and half-truths rather than finding common ground gave the impression that Romney was a more able fighter and, by logical conclusion, more presidential and, thus, the winner of the debate. Would that have been the conclusion had they both been nominees and neither a sitting president? I think not. Likely, the debate would have been more objectively declared an even match. A sitting present running for re-election is expected to do far better than the challenger during presidential debates.
However, I hope the voting public does not rush to judgment based on the outcome of a single debate. The president may have been declared down for the count by political pundits after the first debate but boxing fans like me know that it is too premature to raise Romney's glove in victory. In the match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, Foreman was favored to win by many because of his more aggressive punching style. What wasn't widely known was that Ali had toughened himself up as part of his pre-fight preparation knowing that after a few rounds Foreman would have uselessly expended energy hitting Ali's gloves and arms and mostly the air.
Sure enough, Foreman became thoroughly exhausted from swinging hard punches while a rested Ali regrouped near the end and won the match. That can happen with the upcoming presidential debates. Maybe it's only wishful thinking on my part, but I am going to risk it and say that what we all saw on Oct. 2 was the rope-a-dope revisited. None of us will know for sure until the third debate concludes. Until then, my response to those who keep saying Romney won the first debate is, "It ain't over 'til it's over."
Want to be heard? Submit a Your Turn column (up to 800 words, please) with verifiable facts to firstname.lastname@example.org.