Here is my prediction for the second Obama-Romney debate:
I think it’s going to be a draw, which will ultimately work slightly to President Barack Obama’s advantage.
Because the president was widely viewed as having lost the first debate, the proverbial bar has been set so low for him this time that any kind of reasonably energized showing will likely be applauded as a marked improvement. Since he has already debated at that level three times before (during the 2008 presidential debates), there is no reason to believe he can’t do it again tonight, especially now that he’s acutely aware of the necessity. At the same time, Romney’s post-debate surge was so massive that an unequivocal “victory” can only be plausibly claimed if Obama is perceived as having delivered a knock-out punch against his adversary. While that wouldn’t be unheard of – the best example being when Ronald Reagan famously asked Carter era Americans, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” – it is very rare (although I did offer one suggestion as to how Obama might do this in my last editorial). Far more common is what happened on October 3rd, in which one candidate is declared the decisive “winner” because of his opponent’s errors.
In short, this debate is Romney’s to lose. While he benefited the first time from being compared to Obama’s listless demeanor, he will be forced to sink or swim primarily on his own steam tonight … even as he is simultaneously expected to live up to the high-performing image he established for himself two weeks ago. This will be somewhat tricky, since it will require him to be bold and aggressive without committing any of the gaffes to which he has occasionally been prone. Indeed, had it not been for the high expectations Obama faced last time, coupled with the president’s own excessively deferential demeanor, Romney’s “Big Bird” quip and condescension toward Jim Lehrer might have been rather damaging. If he doesn’t correct those potential flaws this time around, he could wind up handing Obama a “victory.” At the same time, he can’t afford to overcompensate in the other direction and come off as too cautious either, since those were the very mistakes that cost Obama last week.
Objectively speaking, all of these factors create an environment in which it will be more difficult for Obama to “lose” (barring an extremely bad performance on his part) and equally difficult for Romney to “win” (barring an Obama gaffe, more Obama indifference, or a Reaganesque moment). This works to Obama’s immediate advantage, since obviously a repeat of the verdict from the first debate might make Romney’s momentum irreversible. Nevertheless, if Romney debates at a reasonably competent level (being confident, assertive, empathetic, and gaffe-free), it is unlikely that Obama will be able to win as decisively as Romney did in the first round. Even if Obama is declared the "winner," anything short of a dramatic triumph will feel more like a draw than a real "victory" for him.
When all is said and done, the odds are that – barring major gaffes by Obama or Romney – viewers will either be split down the middle on who “won” tonight or will give Obama an edge not nearly on par with what Romney was able to accomplish. Politically speaking, this should help Obama halt the precipitous slide in the polls he has experienced in the aftermath of the first debate, but it remains to be seen whether it will help him make any kind of meaningful recovery. I suspect that it will tighten things up by eliminating Romney’s razor-thin lead, and maybe even give Obama a slight edge instead, but not much more.