May 21, 2013
Will the presidential debates make a difference?
Presidential debates are a very important component in the last month of the campaign. However, they have seldom affected results. Precisely because the debates are so important, candidates prepare so well that they simply end up cancelling out each other’s effect. Moreover, as partisans tend to tune in at much higher numbers than undecided voters, the debates simply end up reassuring 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 battleground states. Before the conventions, betting websites gave Obama a 57 percent chance of winning re-election. Now, Obama’s odds have improved to 65 percent. Obama is leading in eight of the nine battleground states, including Ohio and Florida. Obama is leading even in Wisconsin, the home state of Republican vice-presidential candidate, Paul Ryan.
To have a chance, Romney must win either Ohio or Florida. With 18 and 29 votes in the Electoral College respectively, Ohio and Florida can hand Obama the presidency. He is likely to 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 four votes short of the 270 he needs to win.
Romney needs a much more complicated combination of results to take the presidency. If he loses Florida, he will need to win in every other battleground state. As he now trails Obama in eight battleground states, his chances look increasingly dim.
After spending weeks trying to transform the campaign into a referendum on the US 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 millions of dollars on televised advertisements, the Romney campaign can only hope that Obama will make a mistake in any of the three upcoming presidential debates. The first debate will be held on October 3 in Colorado and 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 become more scripted and there is less room for improvisation. Every aspect of the debate has been meticulously prepared by the campaign teams. Candidates know what to say, how to look at the cameras and how to control their body language. 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 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 networks — 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 watched the Obama-McCain battle.
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 less-educated Americans, the number of undecided voters is rather low. 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 the battleground states, Mitt Romney can only hope that the presidential debates will afford him an opportunity to make a lasting impression on voters, so that he can persuade them to vote for him.
With the clock ticking, Romney is running out of opportunities to change the course of the campaign. The presidential debates will be one of his last windows of opportunity — however small — to convince Americans that President Obama should be denied a second term.