Target audiences

Probably the most asked question after any debate is, “Who won?” The appropriate response should always be, “With whom?”

After last night’s debate for the Republican presidential candidates, I know who I found convincing, and based on the media reaction, most seem to agree that Mitt Romney won hands-down. He was more knowledgeable than the other candidates; he was more polished than the rest of the field; and the fact that he’s gone through this process before clearly gives him an important advantage.

But while I’m sure Romney is excelling with pundits, I’m less sure if he’s scoring points with his target audience.

Politico‘s Roger Simon ran a piece last night in which he conceded that Rick Perry’s answers “sometimes lacked in logic.” Simon added, however, that viewers “saw a guy with square shoulders and a gunslinger squint, a man who likes to drop his ‘g’s’ when ‘speakin’ his mind.”

I tend to find this kind of political analysis inane, but when it comes to the perceptions of Republican primary voters, I’m not sure Simon’s wrong.

It’s painfully obvious that Mitt Romney is smarter than Rick Perry. Indeed, it’s not even a close call. But I remember watching the GOP debates in 1999 and 2000 very closely, and in practically every instance, John McCain was the superior debater, while George W. Bush generally looked unprepared, easily confused, and irritable.

I also remember how that race turned out.

Jon Chait’s reaction struck me as pretty persuasive.

…Perry, stylistically, ruled the roost [in last night’s debate]. The media seems to consider Romney the winner. Pardon the condescension, but they’re not thinking like Republican base voters. Romney approaches every question as if he is in an actual debate, trying to provide the most intellectually compelling answer available, within the bounds of political expediency. Perry treats questions as interruptions. What scientists do you trust on climate change? I don’t want to risk the economy. Are you taking a radical position on social security? We can have reasons or we can have results. His total liberation from the constraints of reason give Perry a chance to represent the Republican id in a way Romney simply cannot match. […]

Romney feels compelled to bind himself to the parameters of the question before him. Perry ignores them. It is, in a sense, an alpha male move. I am not going to lower myself to your premise about scientists. I am going to declare my principles.

In my view, Perry established his alpha male style, and that impression will matter more than any position or statement he’s made.

When it comes to picking a major party presidential nominee, this strikes me as ridiculous and childish. Then again, I’m not the target audience, and I can’t see the GOP field the way Republican primary voters can.