David Pakman: What debates don’t deliver
JERREY ROBERTS David Pakman, columnist Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — The 2012 presidential campaign enters the home stretch with the first debate Wednesday in Denver. This will be followed by two more debates at Hofstra University and Lynn University, and a vice-presidential debate at Centre College. After months of overstating their confidence their candidates would win the election, both campaigns are now doing their best to lower expectations, a common move.
Mitt Romney’s campaign made this lowering of expectations official with a memo distributed to campaign surrogates that included specific talking points about why President Obama is more likely to win the first debate. The reasons: The president is “widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history.” “This will be the eighth one-on-one presidential debate of his political career. For Mitt Romney, it will be his first.”
On President Obama’s side, a variety of campaign surrogates have also argued that Romney might have the upper hand, in part because of the number of Republican primary debates that served as practice for Romney, while for Obama this is the first debate since the 2008 campaign.
A number of key points should be noted going into the debates: After them, each side will — after having lowered expectations for their candidate — vehemently insist their candidate has decidedly won.
Voters believe, by a 25-point margin, that Obama is more likely to do “better” than Romney in the debates. Romney’s chances of winning the election appear to be coming down to what transpires during the debates.
Let’s look at the last point, which relates to the leads that President Obama has built in a number of swing state polls since the Democratic National Convention and the release of the now-infamous video in which Romney indicates he doesn’t care about the 47 percent of the country that he says is voting for Obama, believe themselves to be victims and rely on the government.
In Ohio, a recent Washington Post poll has the president up by 8, with a 52 percent to 44 percent advantage. Crossing the 50 percent support line for Obama is big in terms of what it implies regarding the power that undecided voters would have to swing the election. Republicans have never won the White House in the modern era without taking Ohio.
In Florida, whose importance in the 2000 election can’t be forgotten, the president has also crossed the 50 percent mark, leading 51-47, and in Virginia, Obama has taken an eight-point lead. In terms of the national popular vote, Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com has Obama ahead 51.5 to 47.4. Gallup’s 7-day rolling average, more an indicator of momentum than a specific predictor of the popular vote, has the numbers at 50 percent for Obama and 44 percent for Romney.
With every pre-debate day that Romney fails to close the gap, the pressure mounts for the debates to cause a significant swing — one that while not impossible, becomes less and less likely with each passing day. John F. Kennedy made up six points in the national Gallup poll after the first televised debate with Richard Nixon in 1960. In 1980, Ronald Reagan made up nine points against Jimmy Carter. However, this is easier said than done, particularly with the recent trend of a “conservative” debate strategy, refraining from bold attacks and little if any real “debate” between the candidates for fear — in part — of being seen as overly aggressive by voters.
Unfortunately, I don’t expect the debates to be anything other than carefully practiced and rehearsed talking points from either side, riddled with pivoting away from definitive answers of any real kind.
Instant on-screen fact checking during the live debates would be incredibly useful and welcome, but it’s hard to imagine the campaigns ever agreeing to such a thing. Additionally, if viewers actually read a transcript of candidates’ answers as opposed to watching and hearing them delivered, it would become instantly apparent that rarely is a question truly answered.
To that end, maybe it fits that debates rarely change the course of an election.
Let’s not forget the other reason why the effect of the debates could be smaller than ever barring an unforeseen and unprecedented disaster for one of the two candidates: There is more “early voting” than ever taking place. This year, 44.8 percent of voters live in states that have started early and absentee voting as of Sept. 22. With this trend continuing, more voters than in any other election likely will have voted before the first words are spoken in Denver at the first debate.