In the political equivalent of an HBO boxing match, Mitt Romney and President Obama pounded away at each other round for round Tuesday night with only brief moments of respite in their corners while audience members posed their questions.
Had I been ringside I would have left with that adrenaline pumped feeling of having witnessed a raw competition between two superb athletes. But therein lies the problem. The debate last night wasn’t supposed to just be a mano-a-mano battle for the pleasure of the viewing audience. Completely absent from the town hall was the town. Both presidential candidates ignored the audience and bypassed any effort at connecting with the townies.
President Barack Obama should have taken a page from Bill Clinton’s 1992 town hall playbook. When one female town hall participant asked the 1992 presidential candidates, “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives,” George H.W. Bush fumbled. He even had to ask to have the question repeated because he didn’t exactly understand what she meant. After a couple of minutes of Bush awkwardness in swept Clinton with his detailing of the human side of the national debt and how this was indeed a personal issue for him. Clinton’s hands-down win in the 1992 town hall debate was the result of his human touch and focus on the participants.
The second presidential debate of 2012 goes down as a draw with a slight edge toward the president. It could have been a resounding win for President Obama had he followed the Clinton playbook.
The human connection matters. As we know from social psychology, individuals process information and messages more deeply when they can relate to the messenger at an emotional level. According to social group identity theory, if I perceive that you care about the same issues I do, and you engage me, then you’re probably like me and I want you to represent me.
The president’s (and Romney’s) dismissiveness of the questions was evident. Both candidates were so intent on going at one another that the audience participation came off as a nuisance.
This battle strategy was especially surprising coming from Obama given his ability to connect with voters. Obama like Clinton has a gift for connecting with regular folks. Yet, in seeing last night’s debate you would have never figured the President for having that touch that he was so well known for in 2008.
While negativity and knockdown drag-outs have their place in political campaigns, last night was not it. Again, from psychology we know that negative messages are especially powerful vis-à-vis positive messages, however, there is the issue of saturation. Individuals get to a point of message overload when the same old tactics are used.
We’ve witnessed more than six months of bare knuckled political negativity. It would have been refreshing to see a pivot beyond toughness but also an effective strategy for the president to refuse the tit-for-tat and go straight to what matters most: establishing that human connection with the voter.