You know how in a football game, when your team is ahead in the 4th quarter, they just protect the ball to prevent a turnover and keep it out of the other team’s hands by running out the clock?
This is what you’ll witness during this Wednesday’s first Presidential debate and the challenge that Mitt Romney faces in his attempt to substantially ‘move the needle’ with only 34 days left until the election. Not to mention, based on past debate performances, that the President doesn’t exactly have a track record of throwing interceptions or fumbling the ball in the final moments of the game.
Reeling from an avalanche of polls which consistently show the President solidifying and holding (if not, widening) his lead in battleground states, Mitt Romney needs to have a major moment in this first debate in order to stop his campaign’s downward spiral. I single out the first debate because it will (by far) garner the biggest audience and voter interest level, which will wane exponentially as we approach the remaining two debates scheduled for later this month…even more so, if Romney can’t produce a “game changing” moment during the first debate.
The Expectations Game: No Pressure…
Here is the main problem that Romney faces: He’s running out of time.
With such a polarized electorate, there simply aren’t that many minds left to change. Let’s be honest, most of us made up our minds about who we are voting for a long time ago. Even if your guy showed up to the debate wearing the American flag as a diaper and soiled it on stage, you still wouldn’t vote for the other guy. Therefore, Romney’s challenge during the debate is to appeal to the estimated 4% who consider themselves undecided…a task made even more daunting when you consider the average percentage in which the President leads in states that Romney absolutely has to win (i.e. Ohio, Florida) to even have a (albeit narrow) path to 270 electoral votes.
Compound this urgency with the fact that early voting is beginning in many states, and you have a Romney campaign that is concerned about people casting their votes based upon a snapshot of the election and the candidates today, regardless of the debate outcome.
Additionally, if he doesn’t deliver a stellar performance – one in which he is universally considered the clear winner – he may also start running out of money, as his largest donors may decide that the race is no longer winnable and they will begin to shift their donations towards competitive Senate and House elections.
Romney performed well in the debates during the primaries, but that was as the front-runner for 95% of the time, against a very weak field of candidates…never one-on-one or coming from behind…and certainly not against a President.
Which brings up another interesting thing to look for: Romney will be sharing the stage with the President, which immediately elevates his status…in addition to the inevitable comparisons and the inescapable fact that most Americans will also be determining whether he comes across as “Presidential” in juxtaposition.
Therefore, as the candidate who is behind in the polls, he has to walk a fine line of being aggressive, while not being perceived as attacking a President with high likability ratings. Criticizing Obama, while not looking petty or angry. All while also trying to make the case as to why he is a better choice to lead the country…and not just because he “isn’t Obama,” since that argument isn’t unlikely to move undecided voters to his side or change people’s minds in any meaningful way.
Couple this with the constant drum of embarrassing news cycles ranging from being caught dismissing nearly half the country as “victims” that “don’t take personal responsibility and care for their lives”…
OR a botched and universally panned press conference pertaining to the violence in Libya & Egypt, in which he heavily politicized the death of Americans and revealed his ineptitude on foreign policy
OR failing to mention our troops actively serving overseas during his acceptance speech
OR releasing tax returns that revealed he paid a lower percentage than a school teacher (albeit on capital gains)
OR picking a VP that is most known for proposing a budget and Medicare cuts that are hugely unpopular with senior citizens (the country’s most reliable voting base) and distancing himself from it / him
OR a long and documented record of contradictory statements that reveal a man who has no long held beliefs or principles (save for simply the ambition to be President)…
…you begin to get a sense of the perception that has been solidifying around Mitt Romney for a long time and why early voting based on this snapshot is a concern – it could be the difference in certain battleground states.
The other problem that Romney faces is that he simply isn’t a very good candidate. His campaign has been inconsistent (at best) by chasing shiny objects in the news and not sticking to any consistent messaging. He has not clearly defined himself, instead allowing the President to do that, and does not seem to have a clear sense of who he is, what he stands for and how to connect with people. His attempts to connect with average voters is painful at best. He emerged from a brutal primary process in which every alternative to him enjoyed a spot at the top of the polls. He is losing to the President by wide margins with important demographics such as Latinos, women, African Americans, senior citizens, veterans and middle class workers. If you asked people to describe the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the name “Mitt Romney,” you aren’t likely to hear consistent or flattering responses – with the exception that, “he isn’t Obama” – however the “anybody but” argument has always been a losing political strategy.
Romney faces an uphill battle during the debate, as he has to be on the offensive and attack, while also trying to sound optimistic about our future and explaining why he is the better alternative and not just making it all about the President. That is a difficult line to walk, one that requires the President to make a huge debate blunder (unlikely), having Romney awarded the “line of the night” and coming across as better suited for the job that his opponent already holds and that every person in the country already sees him (Obama) as…the President. Mitt can practice and prepare all the “zingers” he wants…but he is not a talented enough politician to authentically pull off a, “There you go again” line…especially not after his campaign has been broadcasting the fact that he has been practicing these “zingers” for months.
The first rule of Zinger Club: You do not talk about Zinger Club.
Lastly, his campaign has been lowering expectations for his debate performance to the point that simply completing a sentence will be spun by his camp as a, “clear victory.”
But hey, it worked for Dan Quayle.
The President: Don’t Drop the Ball…
President Obama leads in the polls and Romney has yet to win a news cycle in the last few weeks, if not months. Therefore, his job is to keep possession of the ball and not make any mistakes in which he allows Romney to take it from him. You will likely see the President provide measured responses in an attempt to avoid saying anything that could be considered a flub. Obama knows that the burden of proof lies squarely on Romney’s shoulders, and as such, Mitt is more likely to make a costly mistake in his attempt to change the course of the election, his listing campaign and the polls.
The President does have a difficult economy to answer for and this was supposed to be the cornerstone of Romney’s argument against him, but Obama does have over 30 consecutive months of job growth to point to and the fact that we are no longer losing 800,000 jobs a month like we were when he took office…therefore Mitt’s strongest attack is, “it’s not happening fast enough.” Whether or not that will resonate with people is unknown, but the polls seem to clearly indicate that it does not.
Obama also knows that Romney’s performance will need to be more drastic than his own for the perception to change. Anyone who understands debates knows that Mitt’s is the most precarious position to be in. However, the President is a highly competitive man and I would not be surprised to hear a few carefully worded lines that are intended to get under Romney’s skin, with the intent of making him come across as agitated or angry. Being angry is fine during the primaries, but not during a Presidential debate…the standards are simply higher. President Obama has also participated in these kinds of debates before, whereas Romney may get caught up in his desire to make an impact and is more likely to overreach in front of such a large audience as a result.
So, whether it’s crediting Romney on providing the blueprint for ObamaCare (aka: reminding voters) or the almost guaranteed multiple and subtle references to the 47% or Libya remarks that the President will sprinkle into his responses (aka: reminding voters), you can probably bet that the President intends to keep getting first downs in order to control the clock and to protect his lead.
The President’s biggest challenge is to fight his desire to prove his grasp on complex information, which can result in wordy responses that don’t always connect. Debates are not the place for high rhetoric (his forte), therefore he needs to keep his answers short, succinct and to the point…and make Romney have to prove that he can fight in the same weight class as the President (sorry for the mixed sports metaphors). One of Romney’s weaknesses is the lack of detail that he offers for his plans, in fact his campaign has openly stated that they will not go into specifics about those plans during the election. By challenging him on the details, President Obama will likely paint a picture of Romney as a candidate who is ‘not ready for prime time.’
President Obama is also not the best debater – however he is consistent and usually mistake-free – which likely concerns the Romney debate prep team, who will be seeking a way to make the President stumble.
Also working against Romney is his propensity for telling different audiences, different things and what he thinks they want to hear. In the primaries he simply had to make the case that he had the best chance to beat Obama – not a difficult task considering the people he was running against – but in a Presidential debate, he has to have a clear vision that he can effectively communicate and which is likely to run contrary to his well-documented pandering in the past. Obama knows this and will likely use it against him.
As long as the President doesn’t commit a clear fumble, all of the pressure is on Romney to live up to the hype that he “has to win the first debate.” Simply squeaking out a tie against the President will simply mean that nothing will likely change in the subsequent polling. For Romney to win, he not only has to sway what undecided voters remain, but also change the minds of those who may already tentatively side with Obama, while energizing a base that is mostly lukewarm about his candidacy…beyond the fact that, “he’s not Obama.”
With only 5 weeks left in the campaign, people already voting early and barring any unforeseen external event that might change the dynamic, time is actually Romney’s greatest opponent.
By: Dana Sciandra
Debate Information: The first debate will be held October 3, 2012 at the University of Denver from 9:00pm – 10:30pm. It will focus on Domestic Policy and will be moderated by Jim Lehrer, host of NewsHour on PBS. Each debate will be broadcast live on C-SPAN, ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC, as well as all cable news channels including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC among others.
VP Debate: October 11 @ 9:00pm – 10:30pm / Foreign and domestic policy
2nd Presidential Debate: October 16 @ 9:00pm – 10:30pm / Town hall format on foreign and domestic policy
3rd Presidential Debate: October 22 @ 9:00pm – 10:30pm / Foreign policy