The importance of the Presidential Debate

The first Presidential debate in 1960 is credited with having helped Kennedy win a narrow election against Richard Nixon

The first Presidential debate on October 3rd is important.   Even if it comes off bland and boring, it will have been important.     Here’s why.

Mitt Romney is down, but not out.   He finished September with a crawl, having two very bad weeks after the month started with the Democratic convention outshining the Republican show from Tampa Bay.   If this had been an election held in normal economic times, Romney would be in Mondale territory, a sure loser.

But it’s not a normal election.  The global economy remains stagnate, unemployment is over 8% and Obama hasn’t lived up to the hope people had for him in 2008.  It may be that no human could have met those expectations, but people are willing to vote the President out – if they think the other guy would be better.

Mitt Romney has yet to provide a compelling reason to think he should be entrusted with the Presidency.   Yes, he’s a successful business man, but we have oodles of those in the US in both parties; that alone isn’t enough to think he should lead the country.   Romney needs to use the first debate to shift the conversation and give people a reason to vote for him, not just against Obama.   If the Republican insiders decide Romney is an almost certain loser, money will start flowing down ticket and the Presidential campaign will become secondary to GOP efforts to win the Senate and keep the House.

But that hasn’t happened yet.    If he is to avoid that fate he needs to start the turn around on October 3rd.   The headlines the next day must indicate that Romney had a strong debate performance, the President didn’t seem quite up to the task, and that the defining moment(s) of the debate (the sound bites those tens of millions who don’t care to sit through 90 minutes of political banter will hear) broke for Romney.

Ronald Reagan’s late October debate with President Carter helped turn a narrow Reagan lead into a blowout.

If he can pull that off, he’s back in this thing and the poor polling weeks of September will not have been a death knell, but a trial by fire that the candidate overcame.

This makes it an especially difficult debate for both men.    Romney will go after the President with everything he has, and will do his best to surprise and maybe bother a President that can show irritation.   If the race were close, both candidates would play it safer.   That would mean it would be better scripted, but also that neither would be hit by something completely unexpected.   But with Romney needing to go for a big win, he can’t play it safe — and that makes it more dangerous for the President as well.

The 1976 debates between Ford and Carter started the current tradition of Presidential debate. Those early debates were less scripted and rehearsed.

What to look for?

1)   Body language.   If President Obama becomes stiff and more distant, it will show that Romney’s getting under his skin and pushing him off his game.    The President has to look at ease and comfortable.  Romney on the other hand has to appear genuine.  If his smiles look forced or he moves nervously, it’ll be a sign he’s struggling.   Both need to look in control and Presidential.  If one of them doesn’t, then that may do more to influence perceptions than anything they say.

2)  New Ground.   Both candidates might stake out new ground in the debate.   Governor Romney almost has to – he needs to give people a reason to believe he won’t simply go back to the policies of the GOP before 2008.   President Obama may offer some tantalizing new specifics too — choosing to introduce them here rather than at the convention.  New ground can force the other candidate off script because it provides something unexpected (though, of course, both try to anticipate what the other might do).    If Governor Romney can provide something new that is exciting – a headline of the debate – and Obama is unable to respond effectively, it could be break through moment.

When Bush glanced at his watch in the 1992 debate with Perot and Clinton, his apparent disinterest helped fuel Clinton’s rise

3)  Foreign Policy.   With all due respect to neo-conservatives and other hawks, Governor Romney does not want to come off sounding like he’s ready to channel President Bush’s tough unilateralism.   This is a country still gripped by an “Iraq syndrome,” leaning isolationist and concerned more about home than abroad.    If Romney attacks Obama with a hawkish claim that Obama’s not being tough enough, Obama will say “Ask Bin Laden if I’m tough enough,” and then point out where tough talk and careless use of power led the country under the previous administration.   Romney should avoid foreign policy or trying to turn Libya into a scandal – that’s meat for the GOP base, but it won’t help him overall.

4)  Social issues.   Governor Romney has a dilemma.  If he could come off as an open minded moderate many independents would find him more appealing and he might alter the “gender gap.”    The trouble is that if he opens up on something like birth control, abortion or gay rights he might turn off a base that he needs out in force come November.  If he can create the impression he’s not a “severe conservative” on these issues without turning off his base, it’ll help him.

Reagan’s charm and delivery – such has his promise not to use the ‘you and inexperience of his opponent for political advantage’ in response to concerns about the 73 year old’s age – helped him use debates to his advantage.

5)  Zingers and one liners.   No doubt Governor Romney is practicing many of these, and President Obama may be focusing more on the response than trying to land a zinger.   It sounds like a good idea, and writers can come up with loads of possibilities.   The key is timing and delivery.  An ill timed zinger can seem weird, telegraphing that someone gave him this line and he wanted to use it.   It has to be delivered in a believable manner.   President Reagan is known for saying “there you go again, Mr. President” to Jimmy Carter in a way that made it seem Carter was exaggerating and Reagan was trustworthy.

But that line, if delivered with irritation or too understated might have seemed whiney or irrelevant.  Reagan delivered it masterfully and it is remembered to this day.   Walter Mondale did the same in his primary debate when he dismissed Gary Hart’s new ideas with “where’s the beef.”

6)  President Obama’s focus.  The President should focus on communicating to the people, almost as if Mitt Romney was not in the room.  If he can avoid letting himself get sucked into a one on one against Romney, he can play on his own turf, not Romney’s.   He needs to answer the questions, not get sucked into, well, a debate!

What not to look for:  a real glimpse at what either of them will actually do when elected.   Right now for both candidates the debate is about the horse race and focus groups.   That may sound cynical, but it’s true.   If either of them can convince people he is speaking with true substance and honesty, that candidate will do very well.   It’s the first rule of politics: “sincerity is key, and once you learn to fake it, then you’re home free.”  (Styx – “Fallen Angel”)

  1. #1 by margieinitaly on October 1, 2012 - 05:18

    I am really looking forward to these debates and I like how you have pointed out “what to look for.” i also like how you linked the historical debates and the significant lines that have made them stand out in history and impact the electorate. Great post!

  2. #2 by lbwoodgate on October 1, 2012 - 05:18

    Nice analysis

  3. #3 by Lee on October 1, 2012 - 10:33

    Great post and one I am sharing with my 16 y/o who is starting to show interest in politics these days!

  4. #4 by lbwoodgate on October 1, 2012 - 17:11

    What’s going to be fascinating about this debate in Denver is the unusual format that will be utilized. There are 6 segments where each candidate will get a two-minute answer to the first question in each segment and then there will be an open discussion between the two of them. This will be interesting to see who controls the debate during these open discussions. I actually think this is the debate that could ultimately make or break either candidate.

    I do see Obama handling this style a bit better because Romney tends to ramble when free-styling. The bad part about this style however is that it can allow the candidates to take off in any direction other than the one that the moderator, Jim Lehrer, has put in front of them.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on October 1, 2012 - 18:34

      But this also gives Romney more of a chance to pull Obama on to his territory by asking questions and pushing points directly. Obama might be best at this format, but it’s one that has the most potential pitfalls. I think you’re right, this could be a make or break debate!

  5. #6 by kellsbellsfrompc on October 1, 2012 - 18:48

    Personally, I feel that Mitt is too nice. I think he should go for the jugular, but in a cool, easy manner; (it’s all about delivery.) Otherwise, I do believe the media will label him a dog-abusing racist. Oops! They’ve already done that……

  6. #7 by dirtnrocksnomo on October 1, 2012 - 20:05

    I’ll be suprised if Romney manages to avoid a “you people” 47% type of moment. He just doesn’t do well off script. Obama has such an even keel that it’s hard to get him off his game. Through endless insults from the right he has remained calm and steady. It unfuriates the right to no end. It’s funny to me how republicans are always degrading Obama’s experience as a community organizer and professor. These are two things that prepare you well for the back and forth of campainging and debates. Being a CEO isn’t the same. Everyone has to listen to you as the CEO and you go unchallenged.

    • #8 by SShiell on October 2, 2012 - 06:25

      “Obama has such an even keel that it’s hard to get him off his game.”

      Only when he is not using his teleprompter!

      • #9 by dirtnrocksnomo on October 2, 2012 - 15:19

        Would it be okay with you if President Obama used 3×5 cards instead. Do you send in your posts by teletype and read by candle light? f you’ve ever done any public speaking you would know that this is not a big deal. What is your point other than to check off your trolling of this blog for the day.

      • #10 by Scott Erb on October 2, 2012 - 15:25

        Obama’s quick and smart – he doesn’t need a teleprompter any more than any other politician, and probably less than most (though Clinton’s rhetorical skills outshine Obama’s). Obama’s weakness is that if he gets irritated he can sound prickly or not think through how something will sound — “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” My advice to him if I were his debate coach would be “stay cool, don’t let him get under your skin, if you feel an urge to give a quick retort, pause and think a second.”

      • #11 by SShiell on October 2, 2012 - 20:38

        “Would it be okay with you if . . . . ”

        I could care less if he read his responses via braile tatooed on his a**. You were the one who brought out the “even keel’ for the man who, when off his teleprompter, spoke of the US having 57 states and other assorted gaffes. His use of the teleprompter over the years has been a constant source of humor and if you don’t see it . . . You guys get so worked up when someone dares to question the capabilities or lack therof of the “One”.

  7. #12 by kellsbellsfrompc on October 2, 2012 - 03:28

    Silly boy, it is because he is the media’s sweetheart and his gaffes are never pointed out. The media also seems to ignore the Executive breaches he’s taken…..and he has.

    • #13 by Scott Erb on October 2, 2012 - 15:27

      I think Romney’s campaign has erred by trying to build their campaign on gaffes – Biden’s “in chains” remark, Obama’s “you didn’t build that,” or “bump in the road.” I’d be tempted to give Obama this advice: make a small gaffe every week, enough to make Romneyworld convinced they’ve got a ‘gotcha moment’ and thus distracting them from the one thing that could turn it around: giving people a clear reason to vote FOR Romney and not just against Obama.

  8. #14 by thenewamericanlondoner on October 2, 2012 - 21:27

    I’m sorry, S Shiell, I know we’ve come to the point where we almost see eye to eye on some issues, but for an individual who’s worried about the media being in the tank for Obama, you certainly seem to be dead set on targeting him with all you’ve got.

    • #15 by SShiell on October 3, 2012 - 01:47

      No need to be “sorry” London. I respect your opinion and maybe some explanation is necessary.

      First: I’m not the media. There is no requirement for me to be “fair”. People do not rely on my “reporting” to determine the way of things. I am disappointed in the media bias in this country but it is what it is and you have to just deal with it and go on.

      Second: Pointing out the fact that many believe Obama is two different personas, one with and one without his Telepromter, is fair game.

      Three: I find it interesting that merely pointing out any percieved fault in Obama brings out the “jahadist’ in many Progressives. Plenty of fault is found on these pages for Romney, and I will admit some of it is well deserved. But there seems to be so much more than admiration for Obama, something bordering on worship, and that is simply creepy. So God forbid I should find fault in the “Enlightened One” on the pages of this or any other blog.

      Four: I will admit there is much to admire in Obama: He seems to be a fine Husband and Father and in this day and age that deserves praise. But from my perspective there is little to see in Obama, the President, to admire.

      Lastly: If I seem to be “targeting him with all” then it merely reflects my desire to require so much more of my President. And you can trust me on this, I have not yet even begun to unload on him on these pages. To put it simply, I began this political season with the attitude that I will vote for “Anybody But Obama” and so far I have seen absolutely nothing to disuade me from that course.


      • #16 by Scott Erb on October 3, 2012 - 02:05

        I think the emotion of a campaign gets people to see the other guy as far worse than he is, and their own as better. The teleprompter claim is one I’ve never figured out. I mban, Obama beat McCain in three debates in 2008 with no teleprompter, is doing interviews without one. He seems to come off pretty good. There will be no teleprompter at this debate either, so if Obama does well, it would suggest that teleprompters aren’t an issue. I think everyone gives better speeches with a teleprompter. I had to give a 30 minute convocation address this year and I memorized the damn thing so I wouldn’t have to look at notes. It would have been great to have a teleprompter and be able to read it AND maintain connection with the audience.

        What I like about Obama isn’t that he’s any kind of special magical politician to “heal the earth and save the planet.” I like how he thinks, his approach to problems, and his basic values. And the reason is personal – he’s the first President that I can really relate to. We’re basically the same age, have an academic background, and are political pragmatists. So I feel like the President is someone who thinks a lot like I do, and that’s a good feeling to have. But if he loses I can at least take solace in the fact that, like me, Romney is a Pisces.

      • #17 by SShiell on October 3, 2012 - 05:47

        Obama and I are both Leos. I take no solace in that fact.

      • #18 by thenewamericanlondoner on October 3, 2012 - 21:57

        That probably deserves more than the first thought off the top of my head, but really? Really? Anyone? Absolutely anyone? Do you really believe that Mitt Romney could do one iota a BETTER job?

      • #19 by thenewamericanlondoner on October 3, 2012 - 23:49

        Right, but your position is starting to appear dogmatically iron-clad. Just because the Tori Amos fans in high school acted psychotically and annoyingly obsessed doesn’t mean she wasn’t talented. Nor does the intensity of Obama’s popularity mean that it is without reason.

        I can’t see many jihadist tendencies so far in the replies here. Jihadism is dogmatic. It is uncritical and unquestioning, which is something I’ve insinuated and left you to defend about your inability to see the wood from the trees as far as the president is concerned. I understand that Mitt Romney has done well in business. I also think a country could become a disaster zone if it was run like a business. My brother wants to stay in Massachusetts working on the farm he is at as long as he can because of universal Romneycare. It’s interesting that his greatest successes seem to be the things he’s trying to most distance himself from right now to play to his base, but I acknowledge those successes. On balance though, he is unstatesman-like and can’t see the office of the presidency as a kind of stewardship with responsibility so much as a Central Executive Office from which he can cut losses. I’d like to think that means that I’m not entering into the electoral process with an “anyone but Romney” stance, which, frankly, sounds a bit blinkered and extreme.

        I don’t think you should admire Obama for his qualities as a family man. It’s patronizing and personal politics. We as Americans have to get away from it. I think he’s likeable, but he has a job that he needs to do and he’s done it well as far as I’m concerned. Bush left him with an unregulated mess of an economy that lay in tatters around that simian’s feet while he scratched at the back of his head. To paraphrase Mr. Biden, GM is alive and Bin Laden is dead. Stimulus and healthcare reform acts passed. More successful if not stymied by a congress hell-bent on strangling growth in order to prove the theories of Frederick Hayek. He ended the ridiculously outdated ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy, which profited no one and made American look stubbornly socially reactionary. He brought home our troops from a vainglorious and ignoble conflict that stained our reputation and fostered fundamentalism and has set a timetable for doing likewise in Afghanistan. He has helped restore our reputation abroad, which. like it or not, does matter and will increasingly matter in the Chinese-Indian century.

        If you can wholeheartedly disagree that any of these accomplishments are worth counting as respectable ways in which the country should be moving forward, then I am curious as to exactly what direction you think we should be going.

      • #20 by SShiell on October 4, 2012 - 05:12

        Wow! Just, Wow!! Someone really believed Tori Amos was not talented?

  9. #21 by Scott Erb on October 2, 2012 - 22:27

    Gaffes are human, think of how any of us would look if followed with that kind of scrutiny. I don’t think gaffes really make much of a difference. Romney’s speech hurt because it wasn’t a gaffe but compared remarks for a room of wealthy donors. Obama made a lot more errors in 2008 than this year, Romney is making more in 2012. That level of scrutiny is something you need to get used to. Or you can be like Biden and just be known for sticking your foot in your mouth and people just laugh it off.

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