Presidential debates are spectacles, watched by millions of U.S. voters. This evening we kick off a three-week run that includes three presidential debates and one vice-presidential one. Tonight we’ll be live-chatting the debate along with Times reporter Jim Brunner. Here’s a primer on why we’ve just arrived at The Biggest Moment of the Campaign.
For the past couple weeks I have read countless pieces by pundits, strategists, and analysts insisting that presidential debates don’t matter, and the debates are meaningless rituals. They point to the polls this year, which have hardly budged — as the realclearpolitics average of polls shows.
So, the conventional wisdom is that the debates won’t matter.
I don’t buy it.
Here’s my view: The first presidential debate — scheduled for 6 pm Pacific time tonight — will be the moment that turns the 2012 presidential election upside down, with Mitt Romney suddenly asserting himself as the dominant candidate. Or, alternatively, the debate this evening will be the moment that Barack Obama clinches a second term in the White House.
It will be definitively one or the other. By 9 am Thursday morning the race for the White House will be a brand new one, or it will be over. Tonight will matter.
I offer five reasons, after the jump.
1. It is exactly because the polls haven’t moved much that the debates will matter. Romney knows he needs a breakout performance, a moment when the voting public looks at him and says, “Yes, you could be my president.” Romney will come ready to make his case, ready to knock the president back on his heels. My expectation is this: tonight’s debate will be Romney’s best moment of the entire campaign. Heck, I expect it to be his best performance of two campaigns — 2008 and 2012. If it is, it’s a new race. If it’s not, the election is over.
2. Both campaign teams and their allies have sought to knock their opponent off balance in the past two days. On Monday the Obama camp released a blistering ad going after Romney on his investments, while at Bain Capital, in China.
It hit so hard that Republican strategist Rick Wilson responded with this tweet:
The answer to the new Obama China ad needs to come now, not be on defense and be HAM. You guys know what to do. Toughen up and do it.
— Rick Wilson (@TheRickWilson) October 1, 2012
Then last night the trinity of Matt Drudge, Fox’s Sean Hannity, and The Daily Caller’s Tucker Carlson synced up to trumpet a 2007 speech that Obama delivered at Hampton University, where he spoke in stark terms about race relations in America. Turns out the speech had been covered by several news orgs at the time, including the Associated Press, NBC News and Fox News. But the conservative triumvirate went all in.
Both sides are unloading their opposition research files. The debate tonight will feature strong criticisms by both candidates. How they respond — do they get testy, can they explain when challenged, do they come off as mean-spirited — will be crucial.
3. Tons of people are going to watch. According to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday evening, 40% of registered voters said the debates will be either “extremely” or “quite” important in helping them to make a choice. In 2008 roughly 52 million people watched the first presidential debate. Tonight will be the biggest audience of the year for any political event, far and away.
4. Obama will be directly challenged on stage, in front of the American public, in ways he hasn’t been since 2008. Romney participated in 19 debates in the GOP primary season this campaign, so he has had people up in his grill a number of times in recent months. In 2007 and 2008, Obama made it through 26 debates in the epic Democratic primary contest with Hillary Clinton, and then three more against John McCain. But not one since. Do we really think that Massachusetts Seantor John Kerry, who has been playing the role of Romney in Obama’s debate prep, gave Obama all he could handle? Even if he did, it was on the practice field. Tonight in Denver the lights and cameras are on, and Obama hasn’t been on the same stage with an opponent in four years. In 2004 President George W. Bush was handily defeated in the first debate with Kerry, and the polls closed from a 6-point Bush advantage to a 2-point Bush lead overnight. The same could happen beginning tonight.
5. For Obama, though, he could put this election away tonight. If he can channel former president Bill Clinton and “feel people’s pain”, then he’ll widen the huge empathy advantage that he already holds over Romney. In an economy that has been weak for years, but in recent weeks is starting to be seen by the public in much more hopeful terms, Obama is in a better position than most analysts would have expected before this election began. He’s gotten here because the public likes him much more than Romney. If he can come out of the debates as the candidate perceived to be more in touch with the American public, then he will have put the White House out of reach for Romney. If Obama comes off as more likeable when the two candidates stand side by side, then it’s game over.