Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Who won last night's debate?

The last of the three presidential debates was last night. I'm here to tell you how to figure out who won.

Just wait two weeks.

I used to do competitive debate in high school. In a formal debate, there are criteria for judging who won. There is also a precisely worded topic, which debaters take apart, word by word. And then there is a judge, or for high-stakes rounds, a panel of judges, from 3 to dozens. In presidential debates, there is none of that. Last night the candidates didn't even stick to the vague area of "foreign policy."

That doesn't stop everyone from media commentators to your Facebook friends from declaring a winner. The consensus (which I would agree with, as far as it goes) seems to be:

  • Debate 1: Romney
  • VP debate: Draw
  • Debate 2: Draw, edge to Obama
  • Debate 3: Obama

But that consensus is pretty meaningless.

If there is a panel of judges that the debaters were appealing to, it was the voters, obviously. And, of course, the voters are going to hand in a split decision. Romney voters not only "think" he won the debates. For them, he did. Same for Obama voters. 

So when commentators observe wryly that everyone thinks "their guy" won, it's not ironic, and it doesn't reflect ideological or partisan blinders. It's reality. We have a panel of 130 million+ judges, and that's how those judges are voting. They will turn in their ballots on November 6. There's really no other way to call a winner that makes sense.



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