Midway through a watch party for the first presidential debate of the 2012 election on Wednesday, LSA freshman Nina Peluso grabbed her notebook and French textbook out of her backpack and started doing her homework.
She was not so much disinterested in the debate as she was unmoved: For all the one-liners and criticisms President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney exchanged, the showdown did little to change her political views.
Students watching the debate at the Ford School of Public Policy and Palmer Commons said the debate would not likely influence their decisions on Nov. 6. However, University experts said Romney’s performance, which they called aggressive, in juxtaposition to a passive and unremarkable performance by Obama, could bolster support for the Republican’s among swing voters and lead to an increase by a point or so in polls.
With less than five weeks until Election Day, Obama and Romney again presented their candidacies as a distinct choice between ideologies. When the night’s moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, invited them to illustrate the differences between their policies, Obama and Romney often took the chance to do so sharply.
The candidates sparred on the economy, health care, energy and the role of government. After Obama started the debate by defining the major differences between him and his opponent on jobs and the economy, Romney defended what he said was a mischaracterization of his philosophies and then criticized Obama’s economic record.
With Lehrer unable to hold the candidates’s responses to the prescribed time, the candidates did not touch on domestic policy issues that might have favored Obama, said Aaron Kall, director of the University’s debate program. He noted that social issues and a discussion of the candidates’s stances on policies like immigration reform were not discussed.
Michael Heaney, an assistant professor of political science, said that of the topics the candidates discussed, Romney seemed more aggressive and more eloquent than Obama. He added that Obama was often “straight down the middle,” whereas Romney took risks that sometimes paid off and other times came off as “completely stupid.”
“Romney’s a stronger debater, and in a lot of ways I think that Romney is a stronger speaker,” Heaney said. “Overall, he comes across as stronger.”
The result, according to Heaney, could be what he called a “slight narrowing” of Obama’s lead in the polls. He predicted that by Friday, the polls might record Romney’s disadvantage to be about 2.5 percent, as opposed to the 3.5 percent it was before the debate in several polls.
While Heaney said Romney might gain a new constituency of swing voters, most students at the watch party said they were not swayed by either candidate’s performance.
Zingers and one-line put-downs from each candidate earned applause and laughs from the audience of 266 students in Annenberg Auditorium at the Ford School of Public Policy, comprising the largest watch party on campus Wednesday night, according to the event’s organizers.
LSA freshman Sara Isaac, who attended the debate after being encourages by her political science professor, said she thought oftentimes the candidates labored over minor points or statistics.
“A lot of it was just very repetitive,” Isaac said in an interview after the debate. “They would attack the same issue. They kept going back to the same issue.”
The complaint was the same for Public Policy graduate student Nick Johnson, who said he was surprised that Obama was able to put Romney on the defensive, but disappointed in the inconsistent performances of both candidates.
“Too much of the debate was just arguing about the facts,” he said, pointing to Romney’s insistence that Obama would cut $716 billion from Medicare and Obama’s subsequent denial. “It was just fact-throwing.”
Public Policy graduate student Jarron Bowman also expressed dismay that the debate offered few memorable moments.
“Obama lacked energy throughout the debate,” he said. “He just wasn’t very polished. Romney was more polished but didn’t provide specifics, and I don’t think that Obama capitalized on (that).”
At a watch party for the Undergraduate Political Science Association in Palmer Commons, students said they were equally unenthused with the candidates’s showings.
LSA junior Erik Hanson said neither Obama nor Romney distinguished himself, adding that he felt that both performances were merely average.
“I think both (candidates) are doing an okay job,” he said. “Neither of them seem completely great.”
LSA freshman Lauren Dahar, however, said she thought Romney outperformed her expectations.
“I’m impressed with how put together Romney is,” she said. “I’m a Romney supporter and I thought he was going to crash and burn and so far he hasn’t.”
—Daily Staff Reporter Katie Burke contributed to this report.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article misattributed a quote to Public Policy graduate student Nick Johnson.