A week and a day from now, President Obama and Governor Romney will meet in Denver for the first of their three debates. The constant stream of polls showing the President with solid leads nationally and in “swing states” and what seem to be daily errors by the Romney camp has elevated the importance of the October 3rd debate into an almost “do or die” scenario for the Republican nominee. To me, this raises two questions – first, whether Romney can “win” the debate and second, whether it matters (i.e., even if he “wins” the debate, is it likely to change the outcome of the race).
Winning and losing debates is, to a degree, a parlor game driven by political spin and journalistic self-selection. If you watch D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal documentary on the 1992 Presidential campaign, The War Room, you will see a snippet of George Stephanopolous sprinting through the bowels of a debate location yelling out the “talking points” he wanted Clinton surrogates uttering as a debate ended. Needless to say, things have gotten a bit more sophisticated since then, with campaigns sending out press releases, opposition research and comments in real time, as the debate is happening, followed by post-debate wrap-up in the it-would-be-funny-if-it-was-not-a-perfectly-described “spin room.” Within a few hours, and reinforced a day or two later, the conventional wisdom of victor and vanquished, determined in part by political talking heads and then affirmed by whatever polling needle moves (or does not), is complete.
In the GOP primary, debates had little long-term effect on the race. While Romney was sometimes unsteady ($10,000 bet anyone?), because his opponents were both underfunded and lacked the deep organizational infrastructure necessary to be competitive, any time Romney did slip and look vulnerable proved fleeting because his challengers could never capitalize on his errors (they lacked money) and he was able to bury bad news in a blizzard of negative advertising against his foes. He was also helped by an overall media narrative that framed him as somewhere between the “front runner” and “inevitable” nominee and the mediocrity of the field ended up confirming this view.
Of course, the general election cost of Romney’s primary election victory is seen in the well-to-the-right positions he took on issues like birth control and contraception (he came out in support of a “personhood” amendment, against requiring employers to provide birth control to women as part of their health coverage and for defunding Planned Parenthood), immigration (announced he would veto the DREAM Act and supported something called “self-deportation” which, as Rachel Maddow noted, traces its origins to a piece of 1994 satire against then-California Governor Pete Wilson and Proposition 187) and budget matters (he raised his hand when a moderator asked him if he would reject a 10:1 cuts/tax increase budget deal). All of those positions may have cheered the audiences that packed the GOP debate halls, but they have shown to be deeply unpopular with the broader electorate. Moreover, Romney’s gaffe-prone general election campaign has provided additional fodder for debate moderator Jim Lehrer. On everything from his “47 percent” comments to the flip-flop-flip shift on whether he would retain certain parts of Obamacare, one hopes Mr. Lehrer will pounce on the Governor’s attempts at obfuscation on the debate stage.
As for the debate itself, the format does not play to Romney’s strength. Both the 1st and 3rd debates have the same structure – 90 minutes split into 15 minute blocks, 2 minutes for candidate answers and then discussion at the moderator’s discretion. The 1st debate is exclusively on domestic policy, the 3rd is exclusively on foreign policy. While the topics will be known to the candidates ahead of time, Romney is outside his comfort zone when the formalism of question and answer breaks down. He is good when delivering a canned answer, but when sparring with an opponent, he gets flustered, rude and sometimes, non-sensical. In the primary debates, he cut off Rick Perry several times, on another occasion put his hand on Perry’s shoulder and was dressed down by Newt Gingrich as a failed candidate for office who made a career outside politics only because he lost to Ted Kennedy in 1994. Further, Romney’s sparring with the likes of Ron Paul and Herman Cain is akin to taking batting practice against Double A pitching and then stepping into the batter’s box against a Major League All-Star. Obama is not a fringe primary candidate like Michelle Bachmann or a shameless narcissist like Gingrich; he is a well-briefed, articulate and go-for-the-jugular guy who happens to have the gravitas of the Presidency on his side.
Romney’s main hope may rest on the President’s rustiness in the debate format. Unlike Romney, who participated in more than 20 debates earlier this year, the President has not shared a stage with an opponent in 4 years. That might matter, and I would expect Romney to come out aggressively to try and see if he can throw off the President’s rhythm or say something inflammatory to bait the President into responding. The only problem is that Obama has been tested under fire, whether by aggressive questioning at press conferences, elected officials (or faux members of the press corps!) interrupting his statements (You lie!) and the term-long attempt by “right-wing nut jobs” to cast him as something between a socialist and Stalin. If you watch Obama’s surgical take down of Donald Trump at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner or the stiletto he twisted into Republican dogma at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, you will see that he parries thrusts with wit, a touch of humor and a lack of rancor, three things Romney has not shown are in his tool box when speaking extemporaneously. Even as a relative green horn in 2008, Obama handily “beat” McCain by presenting himself as a calm, level headed politician who was ready to take on the mantle of leadership, an impressive feat considering McCain was more than 20 years Obama’s senior and had decades of experience on him.
In short, Romney’s far more likely to say something that will fit into a nice little sound bite of awkwardness and because he’s behind in the polls, needs to be aggressive, something that has not served him well in the past and tends to turn off the coveted “independent” voters who are more interested in cooperation and compromise. Obama, on the other hand, tends to remain cool under pressure, will benefit from the longer response time provided in the debate format and is better on his feet when the question and answer devolves into dialogue between the two candidates. But even if Romney manages to “win” next Wednesday, does it really matter?
The short answer is, “probably not.” Since 1960, when Presidential debates became a part of the election cycle, only twice has the candidate trailing before the debates ended up being the winner of the general election – in 1960 and 1980. In 1960, Kennedy eked out a razor-thin victory against then-Vice President Nixon at a time when Nixon was trying to carry his party to a third straight victory (something, FDR/Truman notwithstanding, rarely happens in modern politics) while receiving almost no support from his boss, President Eisenhower, who famously told reporters he would need a week to come up with something meaningful Nixon had achieved in his eight years at Ike’s side. In 1980, Reagan’s deficit against Carter was eight points going into their lone debate, but as Dave Weigel points out in Slate, some of the mythology of that polling has been debunked. Even so, the Carter economy was in far worse shape than Obama’s, and Carter also had the Iranian hostage situation hanging over his head.
Romney better hope Denver goes well for him because the second debate is a “town hall” where his ability to connect with “average” voters is, well, limited to say the least. The final debate is exclusively on foreign policy, a subject about which Romney is not only out of his depth but has been a particularly nettlesome area, between his gaffe-laden trip to Europe and Israel to his “shoot first, aim later” response to the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. Meanwhile, Romney has done little to debunk the view that he is an out of touch plutocrat, while helpfully providing much to confirm that sentiment. Also, early voting will have started before the first debate, thus reducing the number of eligible voters any debate “victory” is likely to sway. But most importantly, Romney’s almost compulsive prevarication on every important policy issue means that whatever he says will contradict something he said in the past, which will only serve to reinforce the view that he will say anything to get elected while also increasing the chances that whatever flip-flop du jour he serves up will be honed in on by both the media and the Obama team. In other words, he’s screwed.
 Yes, I am aware that some polls showed Bush trailing Gore before their debates in 2000, but you will never convince me Bush won the election both because he lost the popular vote and the myriad shenanigans in Florida (the least of which was Pat Buchanan’s 35,000+ vote total in elderly, Jewish rich Palm Beach County), without even getting into the recount.