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Debate No. 2: an analysis

University poli-sci associate professor Kathryn Pearson breaks down the second presidential debate.

President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney locked horns Tuesday in their second presidential debate, this one at Hofstra University in New York .

Unlike the first debate, the second was a town hall format, which allows for undecided voters to ask the candidates questions.

The format led to questions on topics from women’s equity to immigration to Libya.

Candy Crowley, an anchor at CNN, moderated the debate and drew criticism from conservatives Wednesday for trying to fact-check the candidates.

The Minnesota Daily talked with University of Minnesota political science associate professor Kathryn Pearson for her reaction the morning after the debate.

Pearson analyzed each candidate’s performance, the moderator’s fact-checking incident and who “won” the debate.

Do you think the town hall format favored either candidate?

I don’t know that the town hall format really favored either candidate. Both candidates have struggled a bit to connect with voters, although Romney to a greater extent than President Obama. But that’s really not what we saw last night. Last night we saw the two candidates attacking one another and vigorously defending their own plans.

How would you rate Romney’s performance?

Romney’s performance was solid. Expectations were high after his performance in the first debate, and I think he generally met them, but he certainly did not exceed them. He had some very strong answers and then some weaker answers. The Libya discussion was the weakest moment for him.

Where do you think Romney stumbled on Libya?

He had done a much better job discussing Libya in the first debate, and this is a hard issue for the president. I really thought once the question came up that this was going to be a segment in which the president will want it to be over quickly and Gov. Romney will perhaps score a few points, so to speak. But that’s really not what happened at all. Once Romney got it wrong by saying that the president did not call it a terrorist attack and was corrected, he really stumbled, and I don’t think he recovered, at least not on the Libya answer. It seemed like the debate went downhill a little bit for him after the Libya conversation. That’s definitely a topic both candidates were ready for so it’s a little surprising that Gov. Romney got it wrong.

Did you think it was out of line for Candy Crowley, the moderator, to step in and fact-check Romney on Obama’s Libya statement?

In general no, but I think it does open her up to criticism that she did this to correct Romney but not President Obama.

How would you rate Obama’s performance?

Obama recovered a lot of ground that he lost in the first debate, and I think liberal Democrats were very happy with Obama’s performance. He came out swinging and didn’t stop throughout the whole debate, both in terms of constantly criticizing Gov. Romney’s proposals and assertions, doing his own fact-checking along the way and vigorously defending his own accomplishments. Essentially he did everything he didn’t do in the first debate.

Romney was asked what the difference is between him and George W. Bush. How do you think Romney handled that question?

What was so interesting about that question is Gov.  Romney really had a challenge because for swing voters he had to keep in mind that when President Bush left office he was historically unpopular. But on the other hand, he didn’t want to turn off the Republican base by criticizing the most recent former Republican president. So he was careful to distance himself from the president but explain it in terms of technological change, a change in context, changing times. But the president for his part tried to paint Romney as more conservative than President Bush on several different policy issues, so that was an interesting twist on that question.

I think they were both prepared for a question like that. They both gave thoughtful answers, but the bottom line is when it came to questions of the economy, there was a lot of squabbling back and forth between the two candidates that I think voters who were looking for specifics about the economy were left either confused or disappointed or not knowing where to look. So at that point, they’ll likely rely on other cues about which candidate they trust more.

Did anything surprise you about the debate?

One of the things I liked about last night was that the questions were more far-ranging. Obviously the economy is the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds, so it started out with a question about jobs. Gas prices certainly matter, so they covered the most salient issues, but they also covered important issues where the candidates really differ, such as immigration and women’s equity. So other questions that had been left out of the first debate got some attention this time around, which I think was helpful to voters who want to know where the candidates stand on some of these issues.

Joe Biden, in the vice presidential debate, and now Obama seemed to make an effort to call out their opponents for not telling the truth. Do you think that tactic is effective?

I think to a point that’s effective, but after a while voters just become frustrated because it’s very difficult for a voter sitting at home watching television to really know who’s telling the truth and who isn’t. So it’s one thing for a candidate to call into question a candidate’s assertions and be assertive and not let them get away with misstatements, but it’s another thing to have this constant back-and-forth that we saw last night because that can really turn off independent voters and frustrate them.

Jim Lehrer was heavily criticized after the first debate. How do you think Candy Crowley did moderating this debate?

She had a tough job, and I thought she did a good job with follow-up questions because there were several instances where both candidates didn’t answer the questioner’s comments. So her follow-ups were effective and in fact, in several cases, both candidates gave better answers in the follow-up. There were some Jim Lehrer moments, but for the most part I thought she did a good job.

What will be the memorable image of this debate, if anything?

I think this debate will be remembered as the debate where President Obama came back swinging and redeemed himself in the eyes of Democrats who were very concerned about his performance.

Who would you say “won” the debate?

Both candidates gave their partisans a performance to be very happy with. I think because of the president’s performance in the first debate, he had a lot more to lose with a poor performance, so the fact that he did well was very important and very significant. And the fact that Romney had a strong performance, though perhaps an even stronger performance in the first debate, was less consequential, but I think in general we can call it a draw.

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