Who Won the Presidential Debate: Mitt Romney, and Yes It Really Matters


Mitt Romney came out guns blazing in the first presidential debate, and it seems that Barack Obama wasn't ready for it.  Romney dished out a heavy dose of factual analysis, threw barbs where they needed to be thrown, and generally came off as the candidate there to win the debate.  According to CNN, 67% of the people that watched the debate thought that Mitt Romney won. A more important question that needs to be asked — does it matter that Romney won the debate? Flat out, undeniably, the answer is yes.  Here are three reasons why:

1. Romney's campaign is efficiently contacting voters, and the grassroots efforts will only remind people of the dominating performance.

Romney's campaign is built like a business, meaning efficient processes are utilized to maximize the value of whatever effort they take. In private corporations, they call this lean, and used techniques like six sigma to measure its effectiveness. On the campaign trail, you measure the number of voters you can contact, how many per hour, and the general feedback that comes with it. By comparison to four years ago, Romney has contacted 77 times more households in Florida than McCain did. That means to Romney's 5.5 million contacts, McCain only contacted just over 71,000 to this point in the state.

What is important about grassroots efforts is they build a foundation for debates and television commercials to have an impact. People remember when someone comes to their door asking for support. More importantly, grassroots voters can now ask for someone's support at the door and remind them of the dominating performance that Mitt Romney gave in the debate.

2. The polls, while they show an Obama lead, don't generally discuss an important demographic — the leaning voters who Romney can still persuade to change their vote.

We all keep seeing poll analysis up and down showing Barack Obama has a two point lead here, or a three point lead there. Romney is catching up and it's now a dead heat. It's all bupkiss in terms of where the voting population actually stands, because the persuadable population of voters is still astronomically high.

Taking a combination of undecided voters and those leaning one way or another, but are far from set in their support, nearly 1 in 5 voters are persuadable. Yup, anywhere between 15% - 20% of voters are yet to make a firm decision about who they will vote for. That means they are looking for something — anything — to set the two guys apart, and Mitt Romney gave them a huge reason at the first debate.

The only poll that ever matters is the one conducted on election day. It doesn't involve samples, are qualification questions, or statistical measures of probability. At this point, all that matters now is reaching the voters who are not yet fully committed to make a decision. As such, the first debate was crucial in that effort. Mitt Romney needed a strong performance, and he came out swinging. The persuadable voters are likely to respond positively as a result.

3. Winning a debate is about persuasion, it is not about being right every single time.. Romney was more persuasive to more people.

As a college debater, one of the more painful lessons I had to learn was that I wasn't always going to win the round when I should have, and vice versa. Part of the reason for that is because sometimes we simply failed to persuade judges we were correct. We could have more facts, more information, more good analysis, but something was just off that we couldn't place a finger on. Then, one day it clicked — what we needed to look at was the round from the judge's eyes, and put a lot of emphasis on saying things in the way they needed to hear them. Style mattered as much as substance (and often times more).

The persuasiveness of Romney at the debate was not just that he had more of a factual grounding in his presentation than Obama. Romney took the debate from Obama, and he looked like he owned the evening from the very beginning. Obama still spoke longer than Romney did by four minutes, but he didn't use the time as effectively. The reason people thought Romney won was that his facts were made persuasive by his presentation, which is a phenomenon confirmed by researchers Charles Areni and John Sparks. It was estimated that 50 million people watched the debate, giving Romney a sizable population of voters to persuade.