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The Election’s Biggest Media Moment in the First Presidential Debate

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The 2012 presidential election is a very unique election, when compared to any others. This election would be the start for campaigns to begin taking a more modern approach to get votes for their candidates. Between the Republican nominee Mitt Romney and the current President at the time Barack Obama, the 2012 election would force campaigns to rely on ads and microtargeting more than ever before. The ads would come in the form of shortcuts, so voters could engage with it better, while microtargeting resulted from databases, so campaigns could predict what to do next. Whatever campaign could master either of these vital pieces was destined to win the oval office.

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When Barack Obama would run for office in 2008, the nation would be experiencing severe economic hardships that left a lot of people unemployed. Obama would promise to bring a new type of energy to the oval office and fix this problem so the nation could get back on its feet. Obama would end of winning the election and be tasked with repairing the nation. When he would run for re-election in 2012, the nation would still be recovering from this economic crisis. This would set the stage for the 2012 election, as one of the main problems the nation was concerned about was unemployment.

Going into the 2012 election, the outlook for the Democrats winning a second term in office looked extremely uncertain. After some initial polls taken in early 2012, they all showed Obama being poorly perceived by the public. The results of the polls showed Obama only having an approval rating of roughly 46%. With a low initial approval rating, it could have potentially been disastrous for the Obama campaign as this negative stigma could have possibly carried through into the general election. The low approval rating was most likely due to Obama’s inability to quickly fix the problems created from the 2008 economic crisis. In 2012, the main problem still affecting the people was unemployment. People were out of work and they most likely associated that with the president’s policies not meeting the promises they heard in 2008.

Another main problem the public had with Obama to produce such a low approval rating was his affordable care act or also known as “Obamacare”. Many citizens within the United States did not like this act as they believed it was doing more harm than good, creating a very large negative few within the public. Using these two things that the public was not very fond of, the Republicans potentially believed that they could bring the change needed to the United States. Hoping to put a Republican back in office, the Republican party chose the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney.

Just like Obama however, Mitt Romney would also face criticism and backlash from voters. Although it would not be as much as Obama, due to the fact that Romney was only a governor and Obama was the leader of the United States. Early polls for Romney only showed him having an approval rating of barely over 40%. This was potentially due to Romney’s campaign during the primary elections as he would express a very strong and substantial conservative viewpoint on various different issues. This is potentially the reason why heading into the general election, moderates and independents viewed Romney negatively. When both moderates and independents were polled, Romney received an approval rating of measly 35%. This is incredibly low and just like how Obama faced low favorability ratings, these ratings for Mitt Romney could have potentially carried into the general election. For both these candidates, in one way or another they were faced with challenges from the public.

Going into the general election itself, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would create campaigns aimed at different things. The Obama campaign would develop an identity based on fairness, while creating a strategy to use current policies and past events to attract more voters. Obama would highlight fairness in his campaign to potentially fix the public’s negative reaction to his Affordable Care Act. Highlighting fairness would potentially connect it to the overall goal of the act itself, to make healthcare more fair and more affordable for everyone. Obama’s campaign plan for using current policies and past events, would also engage in sway public opinion. The goal of confronting the negative view of the public and getting more voters at the same time was done by trying to show voters that the measures that were put in place were working.

The Romney campaign would highlight Romney’s experiences within the business world. This was the perfect election to be emphasizing anything business related due to the economy still experiencing problems. Mitt Romney would argue that his knowledge about the business world would fix the crisis by implementing different plans and taking certain steps. Romney would make it a point that he would use his business experience to create jobs and speed up the nation’s economic recovery process. 

Romney was playing on how slow the economy was recovering under Obama’s current leadership. Romney would also play on the large government programs currently being employed under President Obama. With the public expressing a negative reaction to Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Romney would promise to destroy it once he got into office. This would be attracting voters who opposed the healthcare system, allowing Romney another opportunity to build off the negative attitudes from Obama.

As the election went on, polls remained relatively consistent with Obama edging Romney with only a few points. Every once in a while, Romney would edge past Obama for a few days, then Obama would take the lead once again. In September, however, the point spread in the polls started to widen and show Obama leading by an average of 4 points. With how consistent the polls were showing Obama in the lead and the wider the point spread emerging, it suggested that the election was going to be like a runaway train where Obama was guaranteed a victory. 

Romney would begin to change this narrative by taking advantage of the election’s biggest media moment in the first presidential debate. With 67.2 million people watching, the first presidential debate gave Romney the opportunity to turn the tables. Romney would come out swinging in the first presidential debate and look almost flawless, while Obama appeared to be a little shaky. The performance by Romney would once again allow him to take the lead in the polls by a point spread of only one or two. Obama would once again take the lead however, after great performances in the next two presidential debates, essentially making a statement on who was the more dominant candidate.

On top of having to have spectacular performances within the presidential debates, the candidates also had to have great performances in the swing states. In the 2012 presidential election, there was a total of 10 swing states spread from the east coast all the way to the west coast. These swing states were where the candidates spent a majority of their time campaigning and advertising. The most important swing state was Ohio and the candidates fought heavily for it. With Ohio being so important, this suggests that both candidates knew that if they got Ohio, the election would most likely turn the momentum in their favor. In the end, Obama would only end up losing one swing state in North Carolina, but every swing state was heavily contested and won by a very small amount. Ultimately, the closeness in the swing states would go on to foreshadow how close the election was nationwide.

Once all votes for the election were casted, Barack Obama would end up winning a second term in the oval office. In the electoral college, Obama would win with 332 electoral votes compared to Romney’s 206 electoral votes. Even though the electoral college shows Obama completely dominating Romney, the popular vote was a lot closer. In the 2012 presidential election, Obama would receive 65.6 million votes, which would come out to be 51% of the popular vote. 

Even though most of the polls throughout the entire election showed Obama having a large point spread over Romney, they would ultimately be wrong in showing how much of a lead Obama had. Obama would become one of the only presidents in history to win re-election with worse results compared to his first term election. In 2008, Obama would receive close to four million more votes than he did in 2012, while also receiving 33 more electoral college votes. By losing votes, this suggests that Obama was not as popular as he was in 2008 as he was in 2012. This was most likely due to the public’s negative attitude towards the economy and the Affordable Care Act, but the people still believed he was the person to fix everything for the better.

The main shortcuts both these campaigns would employ throughout the entire election would be through ads. In the 2012 election, nearly one million ads ran, which was the most in election history at the time as they beat the previous election nearly 300,000 ads. These were not regular ads however, as most of them were attack ads directed at the opposing candidate. Out of the one million ads ran throughout the election, 86% of Obama’s ads and 79% of Romney’s ads were attack ads. The attack ads both campaigns ran were composed of different negative things about each candidate. The Romney campaign focused its attack ads on the lack of improvement on the economy as people had been without jobs for four years. Romney would not stop there however as he gave voters a variety of negative advertisements about Obama. 

The Republican campaign would also attack Obama for the government programs he was creating as they believed they were to big and bringing a lot more negatives than positives. The Obama campaign would also run a variety of attack ads at Romney in two different ways as well. They would begin to attack Romney’s personal characteristics of being a businessman by saying that he was greedy and did not truly care about the well being of his workers. This attack was meant to destroy Romney’s core argument about being able to fix the economy as a greedy business would only make the economy worse and potentially even take away jobs. The Obama campaign would also attack Romney for have inconsistent views with the Affordable Care Act as Romeny talked about how much he hated it, yet was on record saying he agreed with important pieces of it. This attack ad would ultimately portray Romney as being an unpredictable candidate who cannot stay consistent on his ideas.

The shortcuts these mass produced ads offered to voters all across the country suggests that the candidates were more worried about proving why the other person was unfit for the Job, rather than trying to explain why they themselves should be in office. Both these candidates faced a large amount of backlash from the public when it came to approval ratings, which may connect to why they may have chose to run attack ads rather than positive ads in the first place. If the candidate was negatively perceived in the public, trying to persuade the voters with all the good they are doing is nearly impossible because the voters will be able to see right through anything being said. Therefore, it would be easier for the candidates to take the attention off of themselves and instead try to add to the negative context of their opponent.

The candidates may have also been playing on the low information shortcuts these ads offered to voters. Voters are more likely to remember and engage with a negative ad, than they will a positive one. This thought process would connect to why they ran so many attack ads compared to positive ones as they believed the attack ones would mesh easier with the voters. With these ads being very quick and easy to understand, it would allow the voters to retain the information much easier and for longer periods of time. Since these ads are such simplified pieces of propaganda as well, voters will take the information as a shortcut and run with it.

The 2012 election would also revolutionize the microtargeting of voters through the development of databases. The Obama campaign would be very successful at targeting voters by developing vast databases, while the Romney campaign would ultimately fail at this. The Obama campaign in 2008 had many different databases so all the information they were getting was separated. In 2012, they began to fix this and create one giant database system with the ability to organize data from “pollsters, fundraisers, fieldworkers, and consumer databases as well as social-media and mobile contacts with the main democratic voter files”. Having one giant database would benefit the campaign as it would allow for different pieces of data to be intertwined and create a more well-rounded result. Upon completion of this revolutionary database, it would essentially help the Obama campaign what the next best move was. 

This database would spit out predictions for the best results on where to find certain voters and what was the best way to appeal to them. This was allowing the Obama campaign to micro target voters and use their resources more efficiently as they were not randomly guessing on how to attract voters. The database would also play an important role in the Obama Campaigns ability to win the swing states. The database would combine various pieces of polling data into one, which would allow the Obama campaign to take an in-depth look at “where each demographic and regional groups was trending at any given moment”. Being able to have such a complex system able to target voters would really allow the Obama campaign to have the upper edge in the election.

The Romney campaign would attempt to create a database intended to target voters just as effectively as the Democrats, but it would ultimately fail. The system was intended to turn the data the volunteers were reporting into future predictions later on, but the system failed in letting any information be reported, leaving Republican officials with absolutely no idea where to turn next. With no data coming in, the Romney campaign had no way to target voters. 

Members apart of the Romney campaign said this failure to have any data for the system was the equivalent to “flying blind”. This is the complete opposite to what the Democrats were doing as the Romney campaign was blind in who to target, while the Obama campaign saw into the future to see who exactly they should be targeting next. With a lack of a working data base for the Republican party, it is without question it played a major role in Romney’s eventual defeat. Being able to micro target voters and appeal to certain groups was incredibly important in this new type of technological election. Without the ability to do these vitally important things, Romney would be stuck in old-school ways, whereas Obama would be taking a modern approach.

The 2012 election was a very unique election that set records in some areas, while pioneering in other. Going into the election, the issues about the economy and the healthcare system would be at the forefront of both campaigns. Both candidates would receive low favorability ratings and turn to shortcuts in the form of attack ads. Using a record number of attack ads, these ads would tell voters why their opponent should not be in office, instead of explaining why they should. These attack ads would use low information shortcuts to help voters retain the information better and for longer periods of time. 

Both campaigns would also attempt to target voters by creating database systems that would tell the campaigns who to target and how to appeal to them. The Obama campaign would develop the standard for all database systems as it allowed the Democrats to predict who they should target next. The Romney campaign would attempt to create a database system, but would completely fail as no data was able to be reported and analyzed by the system. This resulted in the Republicans having to guess with no real understanding of who to target next. No matter if it was the attack ads in the form of short cuts or the databases intended to micro target voters, the 2012 election will play a major influence on how future campaigns are conducted.

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