Some Pre-Debate Thoughts

October 16, 2012

In a town hall format from 21:00 to 22.30 EDT tonight, President Barrack Obama will debate his Republican challenger and former Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney.  This debate is critical to Obama’s reelections prospects, just as their first debate on October 3 was essential to Romney’s chances.

Candidate debates constitute a job interview with American voters. That essence was well understood by Romney, who won the first face-off in a landslide.  He demonstrated that candidate performance counts much more than policy content.  Candidates are forced to display how they handle adversarial situations.  Presidents will be in analogous circumstances when negotiating with foreign leaders, members of congress both in their own and the opposition parties, and when dealing with special interest groups.  Debates offer some of the best opportunities for voters to assess a candidate’s vision of the future, ability to sell that vision, and grasp of information and concepts on a wide range of matters.  Well beyond such basics, debates are a vehicle for candidates to showcase their enthusiasm and abilities to think on the fly and empathize with the aspirations of fellow citzens.  Voters draw conclusions about whether a candidate can be trusted, whether they show respect for the opponent while firmly defending their own values, and which candidate, when all is said and done, shows the best judgment in deciding where to lead America and how to get there.

Debates offer a barrage of charges and counter-charges and are therefore not good platforms for voters to determine which candidate best represents one’s own self-interest.  That’s why the performances of the candidates on stage and not so much what each might promise or even how they correctly or falsely define their position, are the basis of lasting voter impressions.  Voters will decide the truth on specific policies mostly from other sources like ads, the news, and editorials they read.  Debates serve to solidify impressions about character, energy, wisdom and abilities to improvise, persuade and prevail ultimately.

Obama has the far harder task in this second debate.  He needs to erase doubts raised by his weak performance in the first debate, convincing voters that he simply had a bad night and that such occurrences are the extreme exception and not the rule.  He needs to appear totally on his A-game in all facets and to perform at a top level for all ninety minutes.  While reassuring voters about his own fitness, he needs to successfully expose and exploit weaknesses in Romney.  I expect Obama to attempt this by differentiating his vision from Romney’s.  That tactic will work only if he can persuade voters that the Romney they see is not the same as the Romney they will get.  But that’s been his strategy all along, so it will be a difficult task and close to impossible unless Romney makes some mistakes.

Romney can play things safer than he needed to do in the first debate, because the burden of proof no longer rests on him.  I suspect Obama will attempt what he thought he was doing in Denver, only with a more prosecutorial and aggressive manner.  Romney has already exhibited considerable competence in deflecting such accusations.  It appears that performing with high energy and passion comes more naturally to Romney than Obama, so the president runs a danger of not seeming genuine if he simply amps up the delivery style of his claims that slick Mitty cannot to be trusted. 

Romney’s greatest vulnerability is the full package that one gets if he is elected.  He trails Obama by substantial margins with the women’s vote because of the rigid conservative position on abortion and other social issues and with Hispanics because of the hostile Republican platform on immigration law.  Romney will no doubt have prepared answers in these areas.  The Republican view that global warming is a hoax will be harder for Romney to defend and could do more damage.  It will be hard as well for Romney to dispel concern among undecided voters if Obama draws attention to the fact that the next presidency could entail three or four Supreme Court appointments.  Obama ought to mention that a Romney presidency could weaken the independence of U.S. monetary policy and would expose the economy to more severe strains with China when that nation is reclassified as a currency manipulator next January.

Momentum shifts during autumn presidential campaigns tend to be limited, happening once or twice but not on a weekly basis.  One shift in Obama’s favor occurred after the two party conventions, and a reversal followed the first debate.  Most likely, the full effect of that debate hasn’t been felt and will be contingent on what is perceived tonight.  Many voters attribute the Obama performance in Denver to a fluke caused by any number of explanations such as the altitude or the suspicion that the president may have reacted adversely to some kind of medication.  If Obama doesn’t perform 100% or 200% better tonight,  doubts raised by the first debate will deepen.  I suspect his improvement, if any, will not be as much as Obama’s past supporters hope to see.

Early in the spring, I assumed Romney would win the election.  Developed economies and political democracies in the 21st century are performing badly.  In election after election, regardless of country, voters have chosen new leadership.  The U.S. elections of 2008 and 2010 fit this pattern.  Opinion polls currently show a very close balance of support between the candidates, and victory on November 6 that will hinge on turnout.  Obama has the better organized ground game.  To capitalize on that tactical advantage, he needs to boost the enthusiasm of his base with a convincing win in tonight’s debate.  Stay tuned.

Copyright 2012, Larry Greenberg.  All rights reserved.  No secondary distribution without express permission.


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