Will the presidential debates make a difference?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 18, 2012


Presidential debates are a very important component in the last month of the campaign. However, they have seldom affected the results. Precisely because the debates are so important, candidates prepare so well that they simply end up cancelling each other’s effect.  Moreover, as partisans tend to tune in at much higher numbers than undecided voters, the debates simply end up reassure committed voters.


Six weeks before the election, Mitt Romney is in trouble. After failing to get a convention boost, the Republican candidate needs all the help he can get to remain competitive in the race. He is falling behind in the battleground states.  The betting sites gave Obama 57 in 100 chances of winning re-election before the conventions. Now, the odds for Obama have improved to 65 in 100.  Obama is leading in 8 of the 9 battleground states, including Ohio and Florida. Obama is leading even in Wisconsin, the home state of Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate.


To have a chance, Romney must win either Ohio or Florida. With their 18 and 29 votes in the Electoral College, Ohio and Florida can hand Obama the presidency.  Obama will likely win in 19 states—including California, New York and Illinois—which will give him 237 votes in the Electoral College.  If Obama wins Florida, he will be only 4 votes short of the 270 he needs to win re-election. Romney needs a much more complicated combination of results to win the presidency.  If Romney loses Florida, he will need to win in every other battleground state.   As he now trails Obama in 8 of the 9 battleground states, his chances look increasingly dim.


After spending weeks—and millions of dollars—trying to transform the campaign into a referendum on the U.S. economy, the Romney team has now shifted focus and is trying to question Obama’s foreign policy credentials.  The attacks against American embassies in the Middle East have given Republicans an opportunity to try a new strategy.    Democrats have wasted no time in claiming that Romney’s campaign shift is a sign of desperation.


In addition to spending huge sums of money in televised advertisement, the Romney campaign can only hope that Obama will make a mistake in any of the upcoming three presidential debates.  The first debate will be held on October 3 in Colorado.  The debate will focus on domestic policy. The second debate, in the form of a town hall meeting, will be held in the state of New York on October 16. The final debate will be held in Florida on October 22.  There will also be one vice presidential debate on October 11.


In past years, debates have had several memorable moments. Presidential candidates have gone off script and have improvised answers and comments that confirm the perceptions people have of their personalities.  More than 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan improvised his “there you go again” comment when President Jimmy Carter insisted on pointing to Reagan’s old age. In 1988, democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen scored an unforgettable point when he looked at his Republican contender, Dan Quayle, and told him “you are no Jack Kennedy.”


However, every election season, the debates are more scripted and there is less room for improvisation.  Every aspect of the debate has been meticulously prepared by the campaigns.  Candidates know what to say, how to look at the cameras and how to control their body language. They prepare extensively for the debates.  Given that there is little chance that they can make a comment that will convince voters, the candidates focus on avoiding mistakes that could turn likely voters away from them.   The rigid format of the debates—and the growth and expansion of cable television and alternative technological developments that have driven people away from national television network—has also reduced the viewership of the debates.  In 1980, more than 80 million people tuned in for the Carter-Reagan debate. In 2008, only 55 million tuned for the Obama-McCain debates.   The expectations are that the 2012 debates will have less than 50 million viewers.  Most of those viewers will be partisan voters who want to see their candidate perform.  Since older voters tune in at higher numbers than young Americans, and more educated voters watch more than the less educated Americans, the number of undecided voters is rather low in the debates.  Thus, in addition to being highly scripted, the debates fail to have an effect because most of those watching have already decided their vote.


Still, as he trails Obama in national polls and in battleground states, Mitt Romney can only hope that the presidential debates will afford him with an opportunity to make a lasting impression upon voters so that he can persuade them to vote for him.  With the clock ticking against him, Romney is running out of opportunities to change the course of the campaign. The presidential debates will be one of his last—however small-windows of opportunities to convince Americans that President Obama should be denied a second term.