Tomorrow, the first presidential debate will be held at the University of Denver in the swing state of Colorado. This is an important rendez-vous between the candidates and the voters. Last election, around 50 million Americans tuned in to watch one of the debates. In addition to that, the debates usually dominate the news cycle for the next few days. Every critical word and every blunder will be repeated over and over again in newspapers and on television. Voters like debates because it’s a rare opportunity to see the two candidates next to each, which allows direct comparison. After all, election campaigns are about showing contrast. If there is no difference between candidate A and candidate B, why bother to vote?
With this being said, it is of no surprise that Obama and Romney take debate preparation very seriously. Gone are the days when Richard Nixon entered a debate tired from a day of campaigning and completely unprepared, and lost to John F. Kennedy. Nowadays, both candidates invest several days of precious time into training, where a party colleague is usually playing the opponent. Both campaigns usually build the entire podium exactly as it will be in reality in order to get used to the setting.
I am convinced that in the end, both form and substance decide on who wins or loses. A candidate has to be very careful what he says, but he also has to consider how he says it. Incidents like when George H. W. Bush kept checking his watch in 1992 do not leave a good impression with the public. As another example, Al Gore came across as arrogant in 2000.
As part of the debate preparation, it is important for each campaign to come up with a strategy what it wants to achieve with the debate. With Mitt Romney lagging behind in the polls, nationwide and in most important swing states, it is clear that he will have to take an offensive stand in the debate. He has to shake things up and change the dynamics of the campaign. Obama, on the other hand, can concentrate for a good part on avoiding major mistakes and selling his record.
In the last few days, both campaigns have also been busy playing the “expectations game” praising the abilities of the opposite candidate. By doing this, the campaigns try to lower the expectations for the performance of their candidate. This way, it is easier for the candidate to exceed expectations and it’s more likely that he will be declared the winner of the debate. It was the team of George W. Bush in 2000 which started this. After days of downplaying expectations, it was already considered a victory that Bush simply survived the debate against Al Gore. In this year’s race, both campaigns remember that lesson. Indeed, one hears Obama’s people calling Romney “quick, polished and ready to punch against the president” and Romney describing Obama as a “uniquely gifted speaker”.
All things considered, evidence shows that challenger candidates usually have a slight advantage over the incumbent in the first debate because they are being taken more serious by the public than ever before. It remains to be seen whether Romney will be able to benefit fully from this advantage. I think that debates are actually better suited to show that a candidate is knowledgeable and ready for the job. But that’s not really Romney’s problem. It is much harder to use debates to make a candidate more likeable, which is what Romney urgently needs to achieve among other things.
When it’s all said and done, one should not over-estimate the debates either. After all, it is back in 1980 – more than 30 years ago – when a debate has arguably changed the outcome of the election. Most of time, the debates solidify what voters think and feel about the candidates already.