Debates: What to Watch For

At this stage in the presidential campaign, expect Mitt Romney to come out swinging against Obama. Despite the stalled economic recovery, Americans, at the moment, seem willing to provide Obama one more term to enact his agenda. Obama’s messaging that the economy has achieved 30-straight months of positive private sector job growth resonates with voters.

This is why Mitt Romney will come out on the offensive at the first debate, to be held Wednesday, October 3 at the University of Denver.

In 2008, the first debate featured high drama, but the contest inside the University of Mississippi’s Gertrude Ford Center is less remembered than what transpired outside the debate hall. GOP nominee John McCain nearly stole the show with his threat to boycott the debate because he was “needed” in Washington to solve the mounting financial crisis.

As if his attendance at a few meetings could have solved the train wreck of an economy President George W. Bush was leaving his successor. Instead of acting presidential, McCain looked overmatched by circumstances. Obama’s best line from the entire ordeal was that as president you have to be able to attend to more than one crisis at a time.

The 2004 election was a tight contest throughout, but the first debate in 2004 did little to settle the outcome. In fact, it is mostly remembered for the bulge in President Bush’s jacket and his wisecrack that John Kerry forgot to mention Poland in his listing of America’s coalition partners in the war in Iraq.

In 2000, George W. Bush “won” the debate by not losing it. In other words, expectations were so low for Bush going in to the debate because Gore was expected to wipe the floor with him, that when Bush held his own, the media anointed him the winner.

Despite what we may remember from debates, political scientists are less sure that debates make a meaningful difference in presidential election outcomes. A review of public opinion polling before and after debates shows mixed evidence that debates can “alter the likely outcome.” This is good news if you are rooting for Obama and bad news of Romney.

The debates occur with just a few weeks till the election. In fact, early and absentee voting has already begun in several states. Second, all reports indicate there are very few undecided voters remaining, perhaps as few as 6% of the electorate. In other words, most people will not be moved by the debates, but will instead view the debates as confirmation of their already-made decisions. Obama has his infamous “47%” of the electorate already tucked away; likewise, Romney has about 45% of the electorate sewn up, and the campaign and the debates are fighting over the rest.

Jim Lehrer, moderator of the first debate, announced that the debate will cover six topics, three specifically tied to the economy, and then also “health care, the role of government and governing” with 15-minute devoted to each topic. Debate 2 at Hofstra University in New York on October16 is to focus on domestic and foreign policy and will allow undecided voters to directly address the candidates. Debate 3 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida on October 22 will focus just on foreign policy.

The key for Obama is to not be drawn into pettiness and to take the high road. My belief is that most Americans would be generally surprised at the long list of accomplishments achieved the last four years. Romney is in a desperate position and desperation will lead him to make a few high-risk, high-reward charges against Obama. For instance, Romney will try to bait Obama on the trumped-up Solyndra scandal or the Fast and Furious mini-scandal. Preparation in parrying these charges in a manner not seen as defensive, but even-keeled and unperturbed is a key to success. In 2008, Obama earned the moniker, “No Drama Obama.” That’s the feel Obama needs to articulate in these debates.

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