Presidential Debate III Analysis—Obama vs. Romney: Persuasion Tactics Decoded

MODERATOR: Bob Schieffer

Bob Schieffer, without question, was the best moderator of the three. He had a commanding presence that made him the most credible and respectable. Schieffer remarked prior to the debate that he wouldn’t hesitate to say, “Can we get back on topic.” He kept his word (to the extent that he could). Frankly, both candidates drifted off topic at their whim, trying to score some last-minute political points. The FOREIGN POLICY DEBATE included remarks about teachers unions, building bridges, healthcare, and of course…jobs. Talk about off topic! If they were given two more minutes, I swear the next tangent would have been the candidates squaring off about whether Michael Vick was wrong for owning another dog. Ironically, Schieffer recognized the drift and even got in on the action with some punch lines of his own.
-“We have heard some of this in other debates.” (Translation- Stay on topic boys. Y’all aren’t about to bully me like you did the others. You read history; I was there when it happened.)
-“I think we all love teachers.” (Translation- Yeah, yeah. Time’s up. Debate’s over. It’s my bedtime.)

Score one for Team AARP!

This debate was the most complex for several reasons. First, the stakes were higher than ever. This was the only debate in which voters could actually cast their ballot for the winner the following morning. It was the political equivalent of the American Idol finals. One mistake could spell immediate disaster if something catastrophic occurred on either side. Second, this was, in many people’s opinion, the rubber match. Romney won Debate I by a landslide. Obama showed a pulse in Debate II, causing many to believe he pulled out a narrow victory (although he mostly was competing against his previous performance). Debate III was going to settle the score and possibly crown the next king. Side Note: Did you ever notice that *nobody* cares anymore about the VP debates? When was the last time you and your friends commented about “Lyin’ Ryan” or “Big-Mouth Biden” recently? Context is everything. All eyes are on the main event. Finally, what I believe may have been the biggest X-Factor in this debate was one that wasn’t discussed much—Mitt Romney was sick. He hadn’t even eaten solid food in some time. People commented on him sweating, but that was likely due to fever. His core temperature was probably higher than his last tax bill, although both will evidently remain unknown to the public. That’s just a joke!

As a professional speaker who has had to “suck it up” and take the stage when I was physically or emotionally out of sorts, my respect level for Mitt Romney’s sheer guts elevated. Although he wasn’t at his best and got roughed up by President Obama throughout the night, from a presentation standpoint, his floor was not as low as Obama’s was in the first debate. I may joke around, but at the end of the day, I know how hard it is to look good when you feel terrible.


Clearly, Barack Obama knew there was blood in the water. This was his topic. Historically, the incumbent always does best in the foreign policy debate. This was no different. Obama, from the beginning, was focused. He smiled less, he stuttered less (which is a big weakness of his), and he stared at Romney as he made his points. His demeanor conveyed strength that made people wonder where he had been for so long. It even raised questions about whether Debate I was a Rope-A-Dope to give Romney false confidence about Obama’s weakened state. Only he and his advisors will know. In this debate, Barack Obama’s performance was reminiscent of Muhammad Ali, shuffling, throwing his arms up, then punching Romney in the face. At the conclusion of the debate, had Michelle put a satin robe on him as he yelled, “I’m pretty! I’m pretty! I’m a baaaad man,” it wouldn’t have been a surprise.



1. MEME WAR – Debate III was a complete reversal of roles. Normally, it was Romney who had the quote of the night (albeit for terms such as “binders of women” from Debate II). This time, Obama must have consulted with his friend Chris Rock to exchange some one-liners for tax a few tax credits. In his last-ever debate, he decided to go out with gusto.
-“The 1980’s are calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
-“Wrong and reckless leadership.” (Alliterations are a great pneumonic device).
– And let’s state the obvious; Barack Obama’s “horses and bayonets” comment was an all-time classic. It will transcend time. It was so memorable, it may be used by Lil Wayne in his next single. (Side Note: I noticed Bob Schieffer didn’t laugh. He may have used one in his lifetime). This line was important to this debate because, regardless of what else was said, Obama won the social media war. Thousands of pictures of horses and bayonets flew across Facebook and Twitter—all being anchored back to an Obama highlight moment. It is likely that the entire debate will be characterized by that one sentence.
Personal Note: I was in a hotel room, watching the debate with several of my coaching clients so they could see firsthand how I breakdown and study each debate. I emphatically encouraged them to pay attention to that moment specifically because I knew people would be talking about it the next day. I told them, “When you write a speech, write your ‘power lines’ first on separate piece of paper. Then you write your outline around your power lines. Most people will forget the paragraph, but they will remember that bullet point.”

2. STORIES – Finally! The President of the United States told effective stories about his experiences as the President of the United States. In a drastic shift from his previous debate rhetoric, Obama talked about Payton Wall, a 14 year-old whose father died in the 9/11 tragedy when she was four. He shared stories about having lunch with veterans in Minnesota. And in his most touching moment of the night, during his counter to Romney’s assertions about him skipping over Israel in his Mideast tour, he responded with, “If we’re going to talk about trips we’ve taken…” (accompanied by a great demeanor shift—watch it again) then went on to reveal that his first trip as a candidate was to visit the troops. He then told a personal story about visiting the Holocaust museum to personally view the horrific events and think about how he would feel if they happened to his own daughters. Obama finally used his strength as a likeable figure to give personal accounts about the circumstances surrounding his decisions. NOTE: Every speaker should do this to connect with his or her audience and add authenticity to the message! People won’t care how much you know until they know *why* you care.

3. FACE PAINTING – President Obama’s argument was easy to follow: 1. Romney has flip-flopped on many issues, 2. He agrees with most of the things I’ve done with regard to foreign policy, 3. Candidate Romney is very different than Governor Romney. Once again, this is a total reversal of roles. In Debate III, President Obama attacked Governor Romney’s record, painting him as two-faced, and willing to say anything to get elected. In a foreign policy debate, Obama obviously felt he had a significant advantage because he had actual experience versus Romney’s philosophies and hyperboles about what he would do if he were in charge. Clearly, Romney also felt comfortable keeping it domestic, shifting his latter responses back to the economy, which is his main advantage over Obama in the polls.

In not-so-subtle ways, Obama sought to remind America of his executive position. The first words of his first answer were, “As Commander in Chief, my first responsibility is…” He later added, “Here’s what I learned as Commander in Chief; you have to be clear.” He repeated that title several times throughout the night. NOTE: If you have an advantage, you must use it. But don’t overuse it. Slide it in casually. “After I was voted Salesman of the Year, I was more dedicated than ever.” Later, “Everyone else wanted to quit when the economy tanked, but they voted me Salesman of the Year for a reason, so I made it my responsibility to be a leader.” Hint—don’t just brag about your title speak about what it means to you to avoid sounding arrogant.


1. SMUGNESS – Ironically, your greatest strength can be your greatest weakness. President Obama dropped some nice one-liners, but some can (and have) construed this as being smug or disrespectful. It is a fine line. Perhaps by Debate III, each side had already established their friends and enemies, so those who didn’t like it were likely not going to vote for him anyhow. However, for you, this is unlikely so watch it.

2. STICKING THE LANDING – Although Obama did much better with the fluidity of his diction, he still had two major flaws that went unfixed in his debates: pregnant pauses and run-on sentences. During his five points about improving relations in the Mideast, he listed all five eloquently, but proceeded to close with, “That will help us…uh…maintain the kind of American leadership that we need.” In addition, he dropped his eyes. Subconsciously, this screams, “I don’t really believe this.” Also, he needed to be more comfortable in his silences. He delivered a few nice lines, but “stepped on them” by failing to pause and let them sink in. Instead, he would say (hypothetically), “America is a strong nation…and…we have a bright future.” A short pause would turn one run-on sentence into two powerful ones. NOTE: Eye contact is essential in the final part of your sentence. Finish strong. Stuttering is forgivable (I do it all the time…check still cashes), but it short-circuits the power behind your line if you close on a stutter. If necessary, take one final deep breath, smile, then finish. “Stick the landing” as they say in gymnastics.


One year ago, I thought Mitt Romney didn’t have a chance—again. After being beaten by John McCain in the previous Republican primary, and as a Mormon, I didn’t know if he would have the support of enough Conservatives who would embrace someone outside of their traditional norm. I was very wrong. Win or lose, Mitt Romney has proven that he is a fighter. I might add, he can debate his butt off. He fought off every last one of his Republican counterparts in an above-average competition for his party’s nomination. Hat’s off.


1. LASSO– Even in a foreign policy debate, Mitt Romney successfully roped Obama into yet another back-and-forth session about domestic issues; more specifically, the economy. His ethos was very intelligent: we can’t be tough abroad if we are weak at home. Once again, he ratcheted up his attacks on Obama’s weak poll numbers on the economy. “It hasn’t worked.” And, “You promised 5.4 percent unemployment. You are 9 million jobs short of that.” NOTE: This was a witty construct, by the way. He could have said, “You are 2.4 percent short of that,” but what is 2.4 percent? I’ll tell you—9 MILLION, SUCKA! Think about how you can use stats to your advantage. Thirty percent sounds very different than three of 10.

2. SPECIFICS– Was this debate held in The Twilight Zone? Obama is attacking records and Romney is providing specifics about his ideas. Wow, anything is possible. Finally, Romney broke down, in no uncertain terms, what he felt were the international priorities and how he would handle them: 1. Stand for our allies, 2. Stand for strong military, 3. Stand for a stronger economy. However, he did ding his credibility by erroneously saying that Syria was Iran’s route to the sea. They have marine access to the north and the south). That notwithstanding, when he changed lanes as the foreign policy debate went domestic, he remixed his 5 Point Plan into his 5 Simple Steps. This was a much better term. Alliterations are easier for people to remember. In addition, the word “simple” implies doable.

3. SHORT JABS – Although he still hadn’t used them as often nor as effectively as previous appearances, Romney went back to using his short sentences to create Twitter-friendly headlines. “When there are elections, people vote for peace.” Personally, I feel these as well-constructed lines as well as his word pictures were his greatest tools in dismantling Obama’s rhetoric. He was not on his game, but even three or four more of these would have stabilized his position in the court of public opinion.


1. NO URGENCY: Between debates, I re-analyzed my analysis. I thought I should have lauded Romney more for his eloquent prose about what a “threat” four more years of the Obama administration would be to our country. In previous debates, Romney often reiterated his stance that “Obama had his chance and he blew it,” now it was time to let him fix this mess while there’s still time. Romney was ineffective turning the pain button into a panic button. NOTE: If you ever hope to persuade someone, you have to explain, in detail, why “now” is the time, not later. Explain the cost of inactivity. Harp on it. Catch them before they have a chance to be distracted by other events (or your competitor’s message).

2. “OUT OF THE BOX” GESTURES – Mitt, Mitt, Mitt. When discussing China, he used his hands to explain the relationship between America and China’s exports. However, it fell flat because his hands were out of the camera. It was the best point that nobody ever saw. He must have been unaware of the tight zoom used for that style of debate. Blame his assistants. He should have raised his fingers right in front of his mouth, then widened them to his ears to show the contrast. With practice, this could have been done without blocking his face for long. NOTE: Always, always, always speak with the audio-visual people beforehand about the angles and ratios at which they will be filming your event. Once a moment is lost, you can’t ever get it back.

3. “ME TOO” – The biggest head scratcher was Romney’s several rounds of props given to President Obama’s foreign policy performance.
-“I congratulate [President Obama] for killing Osama Bin Laden and going after al-Qaeda.”
-(EGYPT) “As the President indicated, I supported his action there.”
-(DRONES) “The President was right.”

Dude! What’s up with the love fest? In a foreign policy debate, you absolutely can’t agree with key issues in your opponent’s foreign policy portfolio.

4. LIBYA LEFT OUT – I didn’t get it. Romney’s one ace in the hole was the apparent debacle with Libya’s handling. Schieffer made this the first question. Romney should have made it his first, last, and most often-repeated topic. Using his short jabs, I expected him to say, “Mistakes happen, but leaders fix them quickly. You took too long to admit the truth. Your leadership has failed…yet again.” Nope. Not this time. Opportunity = blown.

PERSONAL NOTE: Thank you for reading my debate reviews. If this was your first or your fourth, I sincerely appreciate your comments. It takes four to six hours to watch the debate, decode it, then write, and rewrite each analysis. But you’re worth it 

Now…go vote!

May God bless America—and everywhere else, too. : )