The polls will tell us who won last night’s debate, but it looked like a draw

Despite the efforts of pundits and politicians to spin last night’s debate in favor of one or the other candidate, we won’t really know who won until we see the next set of polls of likely voters nationwide and in the swing states.

Many pundits and politicians say that Mitt Romney won because he was more aggressive and attacking. When we break his style down to its components, we get the following, all of which characterized Romney’s debate style against the other Republican contenders for the nomination:

  • Insistence that the rules be followed (usually so he could shoehorn in one more comment).
  • Interrupting his opponent(s).
  • Stridently communicating a few limited points and sticking to them.

There can be no doubt that these behaviors worked in the debates against other Republicans. Against Obama, they worked, too, but only to provide a contrast in styles.

What the pundits are really saying when they declare Romney the winner in that they prefer or believe that the American people prefer the attacking style to what seems to be Obama’s more laid-back and studied approach.

Most commentators have missed a more profound difference between the two candidates: Romney tended to speak in anecdotes and broad principles, while Obama’s presentation focused on facts and specifics.  My dear readers will be able to latch on to an example or two that contradicts what I say, but if you go back and read the transcripts carefully, you’ll see that the preponderance of examples supports my analysis that Romney followed Ronald Reagan’s model of telling stories to illustrate big ideas, while Obama went from fact to fact and from action to action.

While I much prefer the Obama approach, Daniel Kahneman proved in Thinking Fast and Slow that believing anecdotes over facts is hard-wired into the human brain, and that many people actually respond more favorably to the argument by anecdote, especially when they already believe what the anecdote supports. The degree to which fence-sitters in the election prefer anecdotal thinking will mostly determine if Romney picked up any votes last night, which is, of course, the true test of who won the debate.

As far as individual points go, the biggest verbal altercations surrounded two points:

  • Romney’s tax plan, which the Republican nominee either repudiated or lied about in the debates.  If he really does not intend to shift the tax burden to the middle class and poor from the wealthy, the debate was the first we have heard of his change of mind.  As Obama mentioned in the debate, all independent analyses of the Romney plan conclude that it would shift the tax burden down the economic ladder.
  • The $716 billion that the Obama Administration is saving in Medicare costs by ending unneeded testing, cracking down on fraud, adjusting payments to doctors and hospitals for certain services and running a more efficient operation. Romney continues to insist on falsely labeling as benefit cuts these business-like adjustments to what the government pays. Yes, doctors and insurance companies will make $716 billion less, but those on Medicare will receive the same level of benefits and have the same number of trips to the doctor and tests (except for those that they never should have had in the first place).

The biggest disappointment in the debate was the reverence with which both candidates approached the report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, known in short hand as the Simpson-Bowles Commission. As I and many other analysts pointed out when Simpson-Bowles released its report two years ago, the report did not do what it was supposed to do, which was to develop a plan to reduce the deficit. Instead, the Simpson-Bowles plan proposed an overhaul of the tax system which would shift the burden of tax payments from the wealthy to the middle class and poor. That both candidates spoke kindly of the plan shows how far right the country has moved.

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