The latest polls show Obama and Romney are still in a neck and neck race with 7 weeks to go. Real Clear Politics has Obama ahead by 3 points in the national polls, and leading in almost all of the battleground states, but the race is virtually tied and has been that way for the entire election cycle. Neither party has been able to sustain any momentum from the conventions, nor have they been able to capitalize on any of the events that periodically have dominated the news cycle.
All attention now will be concentrated on the all too important debates. The debates begin Oct 3rd, followed by Oct 16th and 22nd and it may be one of the few times in history that they decide the election. Obama and Romney will be face to face and the two seriously flawed candidates will have three nights to make their case to the American people.
According to a CNN/ORC International poll Obama will have the advantage going into the debates. CNN reported that 59% of likely voters believe that Obama is more likely to do a better job than Romney in the debates, with only 34% saying that Romney will beat Obama. The survey also said that 18% of Republicans believe Obama will win the debates. Only 5% of Democrats believe Romney will win the debates.
Debates do not always affect the outcome of an election but political scientists believe that debates can make a difference in a close race. Political scientist Benjamin R. Knoll writing for Centre Piece Online said, “studies suggest that debate performance can indeed “move the needle” on the final vote totals for the candidates by somewhere between 1 and 3 percent. While this might not seem like much, it can be decisive in close elections.” Political scientist John Sides, writing in the Washington Monthly quoted a study by political scientist James Stimson that found that debates can provide a “nudge” in close elections.
To get that nudge, Obama will have to prove to independents and undecided voters as well as the “borderline crossover party” voters that he has better command of the details and has a better view of America than Romney. He cannot have any George Bush moments. In 1992, Bush famously got confused at a town hall debate and Clinton took advantage to create a memorable moment. He has to be concise in his answers and provide digestible detail. He will need to create a memorable debate moment. He will have to use his considerable charisma and charm, his smile and likeability, his “swag” to create a Kennedy-Nixon image.
This is a televised event and despite the superficiality of likeability it matters to some at the voting booth. He must show that he is more confident than Romney is for the future of America. Let Romney paint an America heading towards the fiscal cliff, while he should take a page from the 1980 Reagan-Carter debate. That debate is remembered for Reagan’s optimism and Carter’s vision of doom and gloom.
Obama will also need to use Romney’s own words on Russia to create a Gerald Ford “Russia”–like moment. In 1976, Ford famously said he believed that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Romney thinks Russia is our #1 global threat; Obama should make this a memorable moment for Romney on foreign policy. Obama must not allow Romney to get an upper hand by creating a Reagan moment. We are better off than we were 4 years ago and Obama must forcefully explain why.
Obama is thought to be aloof and arrogant so says the new book by Bob Woodward, so he must avoid any Al Gore moments. In 2000, Gore was harshly criticized for his condescending, know-it-all manner. No condescending sighs, don’t roll the eyes and stay in your lane. No looking at your watch a la Bush in 1992. Obama must take advantage of what is surely to be the most widely watched and televised debate in history and ensure that Romney’s vision of an America full of freeloaders becomes his “Joe the Plumber” moment.
Romney’s 47% comment clearly reinforces and substantiates that he is a candidate out of touch with America. Obama should use this the way Clinton used it against Bush in 1992. Obama can capitalize on Romney’s impatience. As we saw in the GOP primary debates Romney can be rattled. Romney was clearly bothered by Gingrich and Perry refusal to adhere to the format of the debate. He famously made the 10K bet, he told Perry he has a problem listening, he constantly complained to the moderators that Newt and Perry was violating the rules. Obama has some experience rattling the opposition in debates. In 2008, McCain got so agitated with Obama that he came across as rash and volatile.
Debates can be game changers in a tight election. NPR wrote that debates could contain moments of rhetorical brilliance, as well as gaffes and embarrassing moments of getting caught off guard. If Obama can create a memorable moment, then the debates could give him the nudge he needs to win this election.
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