Editor's note: This is the third in a series of periodic articles on a presidential elections class taught this semester by USC Aiken political science professor Dr. Bob Botsch.
During their presidential elections class at USCA Friday, students weighed in on the first debate between Democratic President Barack Obama and the Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The overall consensus: Romney won the debate, giving him a much-needed boost.
Some students kept score based on a formula devised by political science professor Dr. Bob Botsch.
“I had Romney ahead by two points,” said student Adora Hawkins, and her classmates generally agreed. Botsch, however, was harder on the incumbent.
“I had 30 points for Romney and 22 for Obama,” he said. “Actually, I might revise that a little higher for Romney. The president simply wasn't prepared.”
Does it matter? Early national reactions to the debate indicated that Romney had closed the gap. However, the formal polling won't be released until next week, Botsch said.
But Romney clearly picked up some momentum, Botsch and the students agreed. Romney was far more assertive and seemed to keep Obama on the defensive.
Botsch suggested that Romney's best moment came when he cited the U.S. Constitution and referred to its emphasis on liberty – less government and more freedom and building on that. Romney added with what Botsch calls a near “zinger,” with his description of “trickle down” government, that the economy would get better if the government just gets out of the way.
Still, Drew Dempsey noted that Obama did win points when he focused on the theme of the middle class, that he “fights for the middle class every day.” The president also pointed out that the country enjoyed economic prosperity under Bill Clinton and that his approach is the same, Hawkins said.
Obama had opportunities after describing the need for both new revenue and new cuts and how Romney and Republicans had rejected even a 10:1 ratio of cuts and additional revenue.
“Obama's point got lost, that the Constitution has elements of a delicate balance,” Botsch said. “But the president didn't say that.”
Televised debates go back to 1960, when Richard Nixon went one-on-one with John F. Kennedy. Nixon had gotten a serious cold and had a fever. He also didn't have any make-up under the incorrect assumption that Kennedy wouldn't either.
Kennedy came off with the far better appearance that registered more with viewers. Ironically, he was fortunate that the broadcast was in black and white, Botsch said. Kennedy had Addison's disease, which would have shown his skin as orange-tinged if televisions had displayed color.
Presidential candidates today have no choice but to debate each other, but that wasn't always the case. Lyndon Johnson had a huge lead over Barry Goldwater in 1964 and saw no need to engage in debates. Ironically, Nixon took the same approach against Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and against George McGovern four years later.
In 1976, however, unelected President Gerald Ford was compelled to debate Jimmy Carter. By 1980, Carter was besieged by a myriad of problems and had to go up against the eventual winner, Ronald Reagan.
Most people probably don't recall that Reagan had a terrible debate against Walter Mondale in 1984. But Reagan was 17 points ahead in the polls and that debate had no impact on the campaign.
Obama will have to ramp it up during the next debate, Botsch and his students said. In the meantime, the upcoming debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican nominee Paul Ryan will take on more importance.
“Biden may have the advantage through low expectations,” Botsch said.
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