After months — even years! — of slogging through campaign fundraisers, primaries, rallies, political ads and conventions, we have arrived. The presidential debates are finally here. They mark the last, best chance for the candidates to make their case to the nation, free from 30-second soundbites, epic music and calculated distortion from the other side.
For all the deficits, taxes and foreign policy decisions at stake in this election and the next four years, the presidential debates distill the political horse race into its purest form of political theater.
On the surface, it would appear the stakes are huge. President Obama needs to maintain his healthy momentum and cement negative perceptions about Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Romney has the most to prove, simultaneously knocking Obama off his game and making a renewed case that he’s the most fit to lead.
Romney begins October with a bevy of state and nationals polls showing him trailing by a slim but persistent margin to the president. Conventional pre-debate wisdom says the former Massachusetts governor needs a strong performance to turn the page on a terrible September, filled with nearly constant media coverage dissecting his lack of a convention bounce; his rapid, yet inaccurate response to the Libya attacks; his 2011 tax returns; and the infamous 47 percent comments.
The three debates over the next month may be Romney’s last, best chance to change the conventional narrative that he’s out of touch with the average voter.
President Obama’s slim, but enduring edge on Romney in the polls means we can expect the famously cautious politician to stay true to form, projecting presidential poise and command. He needs to divert attention from the anemic economic recovery, especially ahead of Friday’s September job report, and frame the election as a choice between the governing ideologies of the two parties.
For all the strategy, it’s the little things that can trip up a good debate.
It can be dangerous to be too aggressive, rattled or irritated by your opponent. Al Gore’s famously audible sighing during his 2000 debates with George W. Bush caused some watchers to note he appeared impatient, even arrogant at the podium, with Darrell Hammond’s SNL impersonation skewering his performance even more.
Senator John Kerry got some ad mileage from President Bush’s repeated “faces of frustration” in the 2004 debates. But Kerry’s strong performances during the debates weren’t enough come November.
But appear too confident and debaters risk coming across as condescending or distant. Then-Senator Obama neared that edge in 2008 when he said Senator Hillary Clinton was “likable enough.” Days later, primary voters in New Hampshire went for Hillary. In their second general election debates, Senator John McCain caught flak for his “that one” reference to Obama.
It can be hard to show your likability skills in such an unforgiving format. A debater’s performance is endlessly dissected in the days after the event, with sometimes imperceptible behaviors — even blinking! — sifted like tea leaves for potential advantage.
But does it matter in the end? John Harwood notes that it can, but it remains hard to say definitively. But both campaigns are taking pains this week to blunt the potential negatives by crowning their side as unprepared for battle and the other side as “debater in chief,” satirized to excellent effect in New York magazine.
But as soon as the debates wrap, look for the candidates’ surrogates to fan out across the backstage greenrooms and methodically spin the previous 90 minutes into a soundbite-ready truism ready for instant repetition across the media landscape. “Obama beat expectations.” “Romney matched expectations.” “Both candidates exceeded expectations.” And so on. Repeat your preferred talking point long enough and it’s sure to find its way back to you in affirmation.
One thing you can be sure of — once the spinning ceases and the media dust subsides, history will remember all the best debate gaffes and zingers. For all their witty glory, few putdowns match the O-G debater of the GOP: Abraham Lincoln.
During the second of their legendary 1858 debates for the Illinois U.S. Senate seat, the emancipator-to-be characterized Stephen A. Douglas’ approach to the question of slavery as being “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.”
We dare you to squeeze that into a soundbite.
Tune in to Current tonight at 9E/8C for the first of the 2012 presidential debates at the University of Denver.
Plus mark your calendars for the rest of the October presidential matchups and make Current TV your debate destination!
• Oct. 11, the VP debate between incumbent Vice President Joe Biden and his GOP challenger, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin
• Oct. 16, a “town hall” style debate, covering foreign and domestic issues
• Oct. 22, the final presidential matchup, focusing on foreign affairs