Monday, October 1, 2012

The Debates: Pre-Game

We're gearing up for the debates. Here's the deal.

  1. Romney needs a game changer-- a serious one. How big of one? Well according to the graphs on the Wall Street meltdown in 2008 was about a 50-EV shift. Right now? Romney is down 80 EV (note: this does not tell the whole story as the magnitude of gap is not shown in raw EV numbers with those charts--but suffice it to say that Romney needs more of a turn-around than a good solid debate gaffe).
  2. Romney has had some "pretty good news" lately: he's only losing by 4-5 points in Ohio according to some polls. This qualifies as "good news" the way that in The Princess Bride "Mostly Dead" was good news compared to "really dead."
  3. Romney's base--and a bunch of conservative media--including main-stream media (Fox News)--and heavy hitters (Rush Limbaugh) are selling the "polls are fixed" story. According to a recent poll most Republican base voters are buying it.
What Can We Expect?
Mitt Romney has allegedly been practicing "zingers" with which to zing the president and thus create one of those "There you go again" moments that could change the nature of the race:
Mr. Romney’s team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August. His strategy includes luring the president into appearing smug or evasive about his responsibility for the economy.
I am imagining Romney standing in front of mirror asking "Are you better off than one of my prized show horses, America?" In any event, Ezra Klein contends that:
If your strategy to turn the presidential election around relies on Romney’s sense of comic timing, you might want to prepare a Plan B, as well.
It is also noteworthy that, having announced it in advance, won't that make it seem, well, artificial? Maybe so--but there's nothing natural or spontaneous about a boxing or MMA match and plenty of people tune in to watch those. Trash-talking before the event boosts interest and one thing is for certain: if Romney is going to turn this thing around everyone better be watching.

On the other hand, the dreary numbers say that most of the time debates don't change anything and although there are three (four counting the VP debate--which doubly does not count) people only really watch the first one anyway. True? Maybe.

What Do I Think?
I think these are going to be boring. Presidential debates have been described as simultaneous job interviews or dueling press releases and I think that's largely true here. Sure, it's possible that during a rebuttal Romney could get under Obama's skin--possible--but likely? It's possible that Romney could make some titanic error and doom his presidency--but he's been in literally 20 debates and while he's had his share of gaffe moments (the 10k bet) none of that was fatal or even, really, meaningful. If he forgets his platform ... twice or so ... okay, maybe--but c'mon.

What I'll be watching for are these things:

  1. Does Romney come out swinging--does he draw "first blood?" If Romney attacks first and bungles it or Obama shrugs it off he risks his faltering favorability score. If he waits for Obama to try something ... what if Obama doesn't (Obama has already said he'll avoid zingers).
  2. Obama, being ahead, can try a "prevent defense:" Don't fall down, lay out some compassion, and try to look generally presidential up there. Historically, however, the "prevent defense" cedes initiative to your opponent and Obama doesn't want to do that: if Romney controls the narrative he could turn this around--so the question then becomes: does Obama strike first?
  3. Do they shake hands on stage and look genial? Or are they frosty? Is anyone going to try to look like a uniter up there?

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