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.
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.
This program aired on October 21, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.