Tonight is the night of the first debate, which many people are calling Mitt Romney’s make-it-or-break-it moment. While both camps are trying to lower expectations for their prospective candidates (whilst raising them for the opponent), the American public has great expectations for the debate in general.
Luckily for Mitt, the first debate is going to focus on domestic policy, so he will have every opportunity to pivot towards his pet subject: the economy. Unluckily for Mitt, this might mean he actually has to explain his plan for the economy.
The Romney camp is winning the competition to lower expectations for their candidate in the debate. A Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that people think Obama will win in the debate against Romney, 55% to 31%. However, historically presidential challengers have an advantage over incumbents. They get the added bonus of standing on the stage evenly with the leader of the free world. The debate humanizes the president while lifting the prestige of the challenger. All of this bodes well for Mitt, because if people think he will do poorly against the president but he ends up coming out on top, it will have all the more impact. Combine that with the fact that the media loves a comeback story, and this could be just the narrative shift the Romney campaign needs at the start of October.
The debate is not all about the expectations before it, of course, but mostly about what happens in the debates themselves. Very little debating will occur;; instead, each candidate will use each time allotted to them as a chance to get their message out. There will be more competitive advertising then competitive debating. The focus on domestic policy means that Romney has every chance to expound upon his record as a businessman and the current dismal unemployment numbers.
The push for Romney to be aggressive will cause him to call Obama out by name a few times, a tactic which will possibly come off rather negatively, and a risky maneuver considering Obama’s personal favorability ratings. Obama has a bit more leeway here.
Romney has been rather light on specifics so far this campaign, so when Obama goes on the offensive against Romney, he can box him in with his entire party and phrase it as “your party's plan for the economy” or “the GOP wants to gut Medicare." Obama will no doubt highlight the gains and improvements he has made while stressing that the collapse was caused by just the kind of plans Romney and his party are putting forward now.
The structure of the debate will also allow the conversation to move towards Barack Obama’s landmark health care reform and its model, Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care reform. This will be a prickly subject for both candidates, though eyes will be on Romney for a gaffe here. Domestic policy also leaves open a chance for natural disaster relief to come up, a topic which wouldn’t be surprising giving the “coincidentally” timely re-release of a video of Obama speaking bluntly about the disparities between allotments of disaster relief funds during a speech in 2007 to an African-American audience.
The time to watch for the gaffes and barbs is when the candidates start to surpass the moderator and start directly responding to each other. Romney will probably try to get under Obama’s skin rather early in the debate so as to try to set the tone and get Obama on the defensive. To see whether Obama goads Romney into going too far, and so that he comes off aggressive, or whether Obama jabs back quickly to keep himself seeming strong will have to wait until 9 p.m. EST tonight.
Coming into this debate, Romney is at an advantage — not in the polls, but for the debate itself. Even if he does only moderately well, the media will play it up as a comeback story. Romney has to be careful not to get goaded into being too specific and avoid either flip flopping on an issue or backing himself into a corner on one.
The first presidential debate isn’t going to determine who wins the election. But it will determine if Mitt Romney continues to struggle to stay afloat, and if Barack Obama gets to continue to tread water.