Can A Third Debate Change Anything?

President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greet each other at the second presidential debate, on Oct. 16. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Recent history tells us that the only debate that can affect the presidential race is the first one. In that debate, President Obama mysteriously mailed it in, allowing Mitt Romney to make himself a plausible alternative. CNN’s poll said voters gave Romney the debate by a whopping 67 percent to 25 percent. More important, the horse-race polls said we have a horse race.

Little Impact

The Gallup organization has conducted polls since the dawn of nationally-televised debates in 1960. Over that half-century, Gallup found there were “few instances in which the debates may have had a substantive impact on election outcomes. The two exceptions are 1960 and 2000, both very close elections in which even small changes could have determined who won. In two others — 1976 and 2004 — public preferences moved quite a bit around the debates, but the debates did not appear to alter the likely outcome.”

Bush Lost But Won Anyway

In 2004, when incumbent President George W. Bush faced Sen. John Kerry, Gallup found that the first debate closed the race dramatically, but the third didn’t affect the result at all.

Bush went from holding an 11-point lead over John Kerry among registered voters just prior to the first debate on Sept. 30 to a two-point lead right after it — a nine-point loss for Bush. (A post-debate Gallup Poll found Kerry the perceived winner by a wide margin, 53 percent to 37 percent.) The race remained close thereafter: it was tied at 48 percent after the second debate, and Bush was up by three points after the third debate. Bush won the election by a three-point margin, but it might have been larger had he performed better in the debates.

Better The Second Time Around

At Debate #2, Obama was much more forceful and questioned Romney’s facts and assertions. Romney didn’t back down and countered with Obama’s broken promises. Obama was a prosecutor for most of the evening. A CNN poll of voters gave the debate to Obama 46 percent to 39 percent. National polls confirmed the race had come back to a tie.

Benghazi Vs. bin Laden

The candidates’ final debate will focus on foreign policy, an area of strength for presidents because they know the territory. Expectations will be higher for Obama than Romney. Romney will hammer Obama on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya; Obama will mention killing leaders of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden as many times as good presidential form will allow.

Romney will say Obama has coddled our enemies; Obama will say Romney’s listening to hawkish neo-cons and risks getting us into wars in Islamic countries. Romney will say cuts in the defense budget will make us vulnerable; Obama will say Romney’s proposed military budget is bloated and goes beyond even what the Pentagon has asked for.

Three Ways To Lose

These days, debate performances are judged by the instant analysts (are there any other kind?) on three factors:

  • 1. An appropriate level of aggressiveness. In the first debate, Obama was so low on that score, he was a virtual no-show. The president more than made up for it in the second encounter, coming close to pushing the needle across the red line.
  • 2. An ability to connect with the viewing audience, measured in likability, empathy, body language, wit, confidence. This is an area where Romney is sorely lacking.
  • 3. Avoiding a blunder, where the candidate commits an obvious error -– such as Rick Perry famously forgetting one of the three cabinet departments he promised to close, or President Gerald Ford claiming in 1976 that Poland wasn’t under the repressive control of the Soviet Union; this was news to millions of Poles.

Paging Stephen Hawking

What’s been missing from debate judgments –- at least in the immediate aftermath –- is fact-checking. CNN did review some of debate claims, but you had to stay up past midnight to see what they found. Is Romney right when he says his 20 percent tax cut won’t worsen the deficit, especially when he wants to boost military spending? Perhaps Stephen Hawking can do the math — because very few economists not employed by Romney can figure it out.

Give It To Us Straight

Obama’s got to get his story straight on what happened at the U.S. consulate in Libya; he can’t backtrack or engage in long, complicated explanations. He has to continue to say it was his responsibility, not Hillary Clinton’s or that of the intelligence services. Tell us what happened and explain what was known at various times. This tragedy remains in the news because the administration spoke with too many voices and too little information in the middle of a tight presidential campaign.

Working The Ref

In sports, coaches will complain vociferously to game officials about a certain call, knowing full well they won’t get the call reversed. What they’re hoping is that the next call will go their way. No one but Fox News has ranted about moderators, hoping to intimidate the next moderator. That’s Bob Schieffer of CBS News, who handled the final debate between Obama and Sen. John McCain four years ago and the final Kerry-Bush debate in 2004. He’s been with the network since 1969, has hosted “Face the Nation” for the past 11 years, and isn’t about to be intimidated.

In the end, unless someone commits a terrible, laughable blunder, it’s unlikely the final debate will change the dynamic of the race: slight edge for Obama.

Dan Payne is WBUR’s Democratic analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.

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  • Bellcurve1

    “…it’s unlikely the final debate will change the dynamic of the race: slight edge for Obama.”?

    Dan, you’re delusional.  Gallup has Romney up by 7, RealClearPolitics has Romney ahead in the Electoral College, without even giving him FL, VA and CO all of which he’ll surely win.  The election is trending strongly Romney, Obama needs a big time change in the dynamic.

    • ProfitOverLife

      HAHAHA, you better start doing some serious homework, dude, or you’re going to be seriously dissappointed on Election Day, and will have to waste the rest of the week on stupid conservative conspiracy theories.

      Did you know that RCP is clearly a Republican propaganda outlet, obvious from the titles and the slant of EVERY article listed on the site?  Did you know it IGNORES polls it doesn’t like (i.e. polls that favor Obama) when it does it calcs?

      Did you know that Gallup is a heavily skewed NATIONAL (not swing state) poll, that includes a huge but meaningless win for Romney among red-staters [Edit: in places like Georgia, Texas, Alabama] who want their Medicare and Social Security taken away and given to the rich?  In the swing states, Obama is AHEAD—EVEN IN THE GALLUP POLL.

      You really should take THE most right wing slanted site and think it is the truth–that’s like LOL only watching Fox “News”!

      Here’s a great article to start you off from an very intelligent, i.e. not Republican-skewed, website:


      Then continue here and get even smarter:






      Also, go to 270towin.com and educate yourself on the REAL electoral vote math.  Basically, Romney MUST WIN FL, VA, NC ***AND*** OH or he is DEAD.

      Here’s the recent Ohio polls:


      It’s pretty tight but even Fox News and Rasmussen have Obama AHEAD here!  And Ohio isn’t Obama’s only way to win, like it is for Romney.

    • ProfitOverLife

      By the way, do you even stop to wonder why almost all other national polls are no where NEAR the Gallup result, and some have an Obama lead of as much as +4?

      Democracy Corps: Obama 49%, Romney 46%Gallup: Romney 51%, Obama 45%IBD/TIPP: Obama 47%, Romney 43%Monmouth/SurveyUSA: Romney 48%, Obama 45%Politico/George Washington University: Romney 49%, Obama 47%Public Policy Polling: Obama 48%, Romney 48%RAND: Obama 48%, Romney 46%Rasmussen: Romney 49%, Obama 47%Reuters/Ipsos: Obama 46%, Romney 46%

    • ProfitOverLife

      By the way, RCP has MI, NV and PA as tossups, lol.

      Do they look like tossups to YOU?:




      Put them as lean Dem, like NC is lean Rep, and your EV score is:

      Obama 245, Romney 206.  And IA WI have been pretty blue most of the year too.  And NH, VA and OH not far behind that.

      RealClearPolitics—what a scam!

      • Bellcurve1

         Geez, you’re pretty desperate.  But that’s both justified and understandable at this point.

        • ProfitOverLife

          LOL just going back through some old emails lying around, and found your comment. LOLOL Desperate? Did all you clueless right wingers see what happened on Election night? All those swing states going blue? Did you read about what happened to all those national polls? Their accuracy outcomes? Read my other, pre-election replies to your comment in this thread for details! LOL, sure, on election day anything can happen, I suppose, but who did better ALL YEAR at guessing the outcome? Math is “justified and understandable.” MATH WORKS. LEARN IT.

        • ProfitOverLife

          By the way, how’s that list of Romney loss-excuses coming along? I heard the latest one is “he didn’t want to be president”—LOLOL! Well I guess then he agreed with a whole lot of the rest of us on THAT one.

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