Will the first presidential debate tip the election scales?

The per­for­mances in the first pres­i­den­tial debate of the elec­tion season may seal the polit­ical fate of Gov. Mitt Romney and Pres­i­dent Barack Obama on Tuesday, according to a trio of North­eastern Uni­ver­sity experts in media and politics.

“Romney would owe a vic­tory in Tuesday’s elec­tion in large part to his suc­cessful per­for­mance in the first debate,” noted Robert Gilbert, the Edward W. Brooke Pro­fessor of Polit­ical Sci­ence.

“Romney was aggres­sive and estab­lished him­self as a leader,” he said. “Obama was artic­u­late, but seemed strangely removed from the environment.”

Gilbert shared his exper­tise in pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics with stu­dents, fac­ulty and staff in a panel dis­cus­sion last Wednesday after­noon in 220 Shillman Hall. The event also fea­tured remarks by jour­nalism pro­fes­sors Alan Schroeder and Dan Kennedy and was orga­nized by the Depart­ment of Polit­ical Sci­ence as part of its Cam­paign 2012 Dis­cus­sion Series.

Schroeder, an expert in tele­vised debates, panned Obama’s per­for­mance as one of the “biggest debate losses in his­tory,” but praised Romney’s business-like approach to win­ning over unde­cided voters.

“Romney is at heart a salesman and in the first debate he was out there making a sale,” Schroeder explained.

“Debates are live TV block­busters first and serious policy dis­cus­sions second,” he added. “They are tests of tem­pera­ment and per­son­ality and give the audi­ence a chance to judge how can­di­dates would behave under enor­mous pres­sure and stress.”

Kennedy agreed with Schroeder’s assess­ment of the first debate, calling it a “major turning point” in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, but ques­tioned whether the main­stream media influ­enced the public’s per­cep­tion of the contest’s outcome.

“Low-information voters form their opin­ions through the media, not by sit­ting down to watch a debate for 90 min­utes,” said Kennedy, an expert in news reporting and analysis.

He noticed a change in the way the main­stream media char­ac­ter­ized Romney after the Repub­lican candidate’s strong showing in the first debate. “The media stopped mocking him as a sure loser,” Kennedy said. “I think the main­stream media tend to find there is a higher price to pay for going after Repub­lican can­di­dates when the right-wing noise machine is pushing back,” he added.

Schroeder noted social media’s “poten­tially dan­gerous” influ­ence on debate cov­erage. Ref­er­encing an article in The Wash­ington Post, he said, “Jour­nal­ists weren’t watching the debates. They were watching what their col­leagues were writing on Twitter and rein­forcing their conclusions.”