The media have bombarded the public with numerous theories of why President Barack Obama performed poorly during his first presidential debate with GOP candidate Mitt Romney. The following are some of the reasons that public officials, academics, the political elite, conspiracy theorists, and the media believe may have caused the president’s poor showing:
Mitt Romney cheated, pulling notes out of his pocket. A new debate format was used, not allowing any questions to be submitted from the public. Jim Lehrer often lost control of debate. Altitude sickness from having just arrived at the debate. History proves that most incumbents lose the first debate, which is known throughout the political arena as “The Curse of the First Debate.”
University of Missouri professor and authority on presidential debates Mitchell McKinney during a phone interview described three reasons why the majority of incumbent presidents lose the first debate.
“First of all sitting presidents can often be less prepared than their opponents because they’re busy running the country,” he said. “President Obama is currently dealing with a developing micro war that involves the country of Syria and its revolution. Turkey, which borders Syria, has been shelled on several occasions by Syria. There’s the economy, unemployment, healthcare, the list is endless.
“Obamas’ press secretary stated during an NBC interview that the president had already canceled some debate preparation rehearsals because of events in the Middle East,” he said. “He has had to balance the management of world events, governing, time out campaigning. She also said he had less time than we anticipated sharpening and cutting down his tendency to give long, substantive answers.
“Challengers of incumbent presidents have more time to prepare and have experienced more recent debates than do busy presidents [because of] prior debates held during their party’s attempt to nominate a viable GOP candidate.”
According to data provided by the Republican Party website, Mitt Romney had 19 GOP candidate debates prior to confronting President Obama.
Further, say others, incumbents aren’t used to being challenged. President Obama for the last four years has been surrounded by individuals for the most part who have agreed with him and his policies with the exception of the Republican Party members of Congress and the Senate.
The possibility that President Obama could have suffered from altitude sickness cannot be discounted. However, individuals experiencing Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS) has been reported between an elevation of 4,000 and 6,000 feet, and that includes the Denver area at around 5,280 feet above sea level, according to Dr. Stephen Cobb at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis.
Each breath you take at higher altitude has less oxygen than the same breath at a lower altitude. This lack of oxygen can lead to altitude-related illnesses. Denver has 17 percent less oxygen at its altitude when compared to sea level, which can affect someone not used to thin air.
Regarding AMS and Denver, there are certain precautions visitors are told to exercise. Shortness of breath, throbbing headaches and fatigue are just a few symptoms of AMS. It appears President Obama had only a few hours to adjust to the altitude, and Romney had two weeks to adjust. President Obama is an ex-smoker and Mitt Romney is a non-smoker, which is a standard of his Mormon religion.
Robert Roach, Ph.D., of the University of Denver disagrees with Al Gore’s theory of AMS, citing the fact that an aircraft flies and maintains a pressured cabin consistent with elevations 4,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. If the president suffered AMS, he is one of those individuals who are very sensitive to a difference in oxygen, he maintains. When asked if individuals suffer from AMS upon arriving in Denver, Roach said yes, but added that Obama isn’t just anybody. He is the president of the United States; he travels with a medical team, and AMS can be treated with over-the-counter medication.
Another important factor that most individuals have questioned is president’s body language. This, according to Dr. Cobb, could have been a result of AMS.
“I am a pilot and at that elevation of 5,280 feet the retina of the eye is more demanding of oxygen. We are told this in flight school since most aircraft cabins are pressured at that level. Obama’s body language that was critiqued by the public on his tendency to look down a lot, and he had an issue with eye contact. AMS will impair vision.”
Body language is important in presidential debates. President George H.W. Bush looked at his watch during a town hall and viewers got the impression that he was bored and disengaged.
Al Gore might have lost the presidential race as a result of his body actions the night of his debate. He sighed repeatedly during his debate with George W. Bush. Also, in a later clash, he strolled over to invade George W. Bush’s space. Both incidents reinforced a view that some voters had of Gore that year–that he was arrogant and condescending.
In the Nixon vs. Kennedy debates, Nixon had seriously injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate he was still 20 pounds underweight, his complexion was still pallid. He arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused makeup to improve his color and lighten his perpetual “5 o’clock shadow.” Kennedy, by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tan and confident and well rested. “I had never seen him looking so fit,” Nixon later wrote.
At this point, it may be difficult to analyze the damage done during the first of three presidential debates, but viewers might remember that Sarah Palin, briefly became a rock star after her debate with Vice President Joseph Biden. Many news reporters felt she stood her ground and appeared cocky referring to then-Sen. Biden as Joe.
Sen. Portman told NBC “I tend to think Romney’s strength as a debater is wildly underappreciated. Obama’s good, but don’t assume he’ll cruise through these events.”