Here is my prediction for the third Obama-Romney debate at 9 p.m. EST at Lynn University in Florida: I think it’s going to be a draw, plain and simple.
This isn't to say that I don't think one of the two candidates will walk away with a narrow edge of "victory" over his opponent by the end of tonight. It's just that it won't particularly matter this time around. Context is everything in politics, and the fact remains that neither Obama nor Romney will benefit by the favorable circumstances which preceded the last two debates.
Before October 3, Romney was widely perceived as an underdog who needed nothing short of a Hail Mary play to salvage his presidential chances. This helped accentuate the contrast between his energized showing and Obama's diffident tone, thus granting him a "victory" in the first contest and revitalizing his candidacy.
Before October 16, Obama was viewed as having established a poor debating track record for himself. As such, his ability to hold his own against Romney in round two was deemed a small but important "victory," thus ending Romney's momentum from the first debate and tightening the race into an essential tie, which is where it stands now.
Monday night's debate, however, is likely to be a bellowing anticlimax. Obama and Romney both know what has worked best in the debates of 2012 — i.e., the bellicose and confrontational attitude displayed by Romney in the first debate and by Biden during the vice presidential outing — and they are likely to heap on more of the same. It won't have as potent an impact on the race, though, because the stakes aren't as high for either candidate. Now that Romney has revived his once-moribund electoral prospects and Obama has demonstrated that he can effectively debate, neither of them can really "prove" anything by assertive showings. Especially after the fireworks that flew during the second presidential debate, a repeat this evening will merely reinforce the existing trend of the race being extremely close, rather than notably push things in one direction or the other.
While the smart money would be placed on this outcome, there is still the usual caveat. Neither candidate can afford any major gaffes.
This applies equally to both Obama and Romney, of course, but Romney should probably be on his guard a little bit more than the president. After all, Obama at his worst didn't create any memorable faux pas and fallacies, but merely came across as distracted and withdrawn (albeit humiliatingly so). Romney, on the other hand, has produced at least one unnecessarily distracting and silly meme in each of the last two debates, from quipping about firing Big Bird to insisting that he compiled "binders full of women" in order to hire female employees at Bain Capital. So far none of these slips have derailed his campaign, but they certainly have the potential to do so if he isn't careful.
In the end, though, the likelihood is that nothing which happens tonight will significantly change the shape of the race. Partisans on both sides will inevitably crow about how their champion made mincemeat out of his challenger, but to the swing voters who actually decide elections, they'll only sound like more of that obnoxiously shrill background noise to which ordinary Americans have grown accustomed.