In the wake of his widely panned debate performance, President Obama has taken to arguing that the man he faced onstage – the insistently moderate-sounding candidate who said he believes in regulation and won’t reduce taxes for the wealthy – was not the “real” Mitt Romney.
But in many ways, Wednesday’s debate has raised an equally uncomfortable question for Democrats: Was that the “real” Barack Obama?
Certainly, many supporters saw Mr. Obama's debate performance as an aberration. And perhaps it was just a bad night: He was out of practice for debates; he was tired. (Former Vice President Al Gore even speculated that the altitude got to him.)
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But it came on the heels of a convention speech that also struck many viewers on both sides of the aisle as strangely flat and pedestrian. And few would dispute that Obama's entire 2012 campaign has felt relatively small and tactical – and far less inspirational – compared with the race he ran in 2008.
Which has got some members of the chattering class wondering: What, exactly, happened to the candidate who just four years ago filled stadiums and moved an army of supporters with his soaring speeches and charisma?
Republicans have one answer: essentially, that the emperor has no clothes. Back in 2008, they argue, Obama’s supporters were simply projecting what they wanted in a candidate onto a man who was, in essence, nothing but a blank slate. Now they’re learning the truth. “Obama just isn't that good,” conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer writes. “Not without a teleprompter. He's not even that good at news conferences – a venue in which he's still in charge, choosing among questioners and controlling the timing of his own answers.”
Democrats have a different theory about what happened to Obama: the past four years. Presidents are never exactly the same when they run for reelection. And when they’ve weathered a first term as difficult as Obama’s – managing two wars, a recession, and a stagnant recovery – it inevitably takes a toll. It changes the man.
“Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans – and even, I am sure, activists in his own party,” wrote The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta. “His supporters keep wanting Obama to be who he was in 2008. But that's not who he is anymore.”
Of course, the Obama who's been out on the campaign trail doesn’t always seem that different from the Obama of 2008. He still can give a rip-roaring speech and fire up crowds. And just in the past few days – perhaps jolted by the poor debate reviews – he seems to have harnessed more of the old energy and zeal.
More to the point, his 2012 campaign was never going to be a replica of 2008. The “change” slogan works well for challengers, but incumbents, obviously, have to argue for continuity. In his case, Obama’s “continuity” argument has been particularly complicated and weighed down by the slow-growing economy.
So the president has had to strike a tricky balance between campaigning with spirit and gusto and acknowledging the sober realities that challenge many Americans. More than anything, it may be that kind of split-personality messaging that has led to the split-personality candidate we’ve seen throughout this campaign cycle.
If he wants to win, however, at this point he clearly has to lose the “grim Obama” who showed up onstage at the debate. As every political consultant will tell you, even in hard times, Americans want to see a candidate who’s optimistic, who has a spring in his step. On Wednesday, that was Mr. Romney. Obama had better hope he can seize that mantle back.
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Mitt Romney is now repudiating his famous “47 percent” remarks. In an interview Thursday night on Fox News, the GOP presidential nominee told host Sean Hannity that those words were “just completely wrong.”
That’s the clearest mea culpa Mr. Romney’s made since Mother Jones published video of him telling donors at a Florida fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans believe they’re “victims” entitled to government aid. This 47 percent doesn’t pay income taxes, Romney added, and will never vote for him or take personal responsibility for their lives, so it’s not his job to care about them.
Previously, Romney said that he stood behind the remarks in general, but that they were “inelegantly stated.”
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“Well, clearly in a campaign, with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right,” Romney told Mr. Hannity on Thursday. “In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong.”
Why now? If he was going to apologize, why didn’t Romney do it the day the video was released, defusing its impact?
Now’s a better time, for one thing. In the wake of his strong debate performance Wednesday night, this reversal of course appears more prudent, even magnanimous. Prior to this, the Romney camp appeared to believe that saying “sorry” about anything was a sign of weakness, the kind of thing done by losing nominees like Sen. John McCain (R). Now, basking in good reviews from conservatives and the mainstream media alike, the former Massachusetts governor is apologizing from a stronger position.
Plus, the “47 percent” issue has damaged his campaign. As we’ve long noted, individual gaffes, misstatements, instances of umbrage, and so forth don’t generally correlate with movements in the polls. But it seems possible that this did. There’s evidence that President Obama gained a percentage point or more in the rolling averages of major polls following the Mother Jones video disclosure.
That may not seem huge, but considering the closeness of the race, one percentage point either way could be huge in November.
Also, Romney said the remarks were “completely wrong” because they are. No, we’re not going to engage in an argument about dependency and government programs. His words were just factually inaccurate. It’s true that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay income taxes, but it’s not true that 47 percent receive government aid, even if Social Security and Medicare recipients are included in the figure.
Plus, many people within that 47 percent do vote Republican. Southern white voters are reliably GOP, even if they’re on unemployment, for instance. Elderly Republicans collect Social Security checks just as elderly Democrats do.
The more difficult political question may be whether the “47 percent” stuff will continue to haunt Romney’s campaign, despite his apology. It’s possible that swing voters impressed by his debate performance will find his mea culpa reassuring. But it’s also certain that Mr. Obama will still put up ads running the fundraiser video, with little extra commentary except subtitles. Voters predisposed to see Romney as someone who favors the rich may find confirmation in those grainy clips.
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In terms of numerical assertions, Wednesday’s presidential debate at times seemed like a playground fight instead of a substantive encounter. President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney threw figures at each other as if they were snowballs.
“You’ve got a $5 trillion tax cut!”
“Do not! You’re the one with a $716 billion Medicare cut!”
And so on. Eventually the school bell rang and they had to go in. Or moderator Jim Lehrer said it was over and they shook hands. One or the other.
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That can’t be edifying for viewers who don’t keep Congressional Budget Office reports on their bedside tables. So we’ll try to explain in a basic way the facts as we understand them behind some of the candidates' primary substantive disagreements.
We’ll start with the $5 trillion tax cut mystery. At the beginning of the debate, Mr. Obama charged that Mr. Romney’s economic plan calls for a tax reduction of that dollar figure, and that one of the “central questions of the campaign” is how the former Massachusetts governor will pull that off without shifting more of the US tax burden onto the middle class.
Romney said flatly “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut.” He said the US should provide tax relief to the middle class, without reducing the share of taxes paid by high-income people.
What’s the story here?
It is true that a central facet of Mitt Romney’s economic plan is a 20 percent across-the-board reduction in marginal tax rates, plus elimination of the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax (AMT). Do the math on how much money the federal government would forgo as a result of this, and it’s about $456 billion a year. Over 10 years, that rounds up to $5 trillion. That's the calculus behind the "$5 trillion tax cut" figure that Obama cites.
However, that’s only part of the tax plan. Romney has said he would make his overall tax changes revenue-neutral. He’d hack out deductions, exemptions, and other exclusions to broaden the tax base, for one thing. For another, he says that lowering marginal rates would increase economic activity, and hence tax revenue. These changes would counterbalance any revenue lost from rate reductions, according to Romney.
Those are ambitious goals, and Romney hasn’t provided more than hints about which deductions and exemptions he’d try to get rid of. Without such specifics to go on, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center ran the numbers on Romney’s plan, and decided they just don’t add up. A revenue-neutral tax reform that includes 20 percent marginal cuts, no estate tax or AMT, gets rid of a substantial portion of deductions, and keeps existing tax breaks for investments (as Romney has said he would) ends up shifting about $86 billion in annual tax costs onto the middle class, it reported.
No surprise, the Romney camp has hotly contested the results of this study, saying it’s flawed. Romney has started to speculate on possible additional tax details, such as a cap on the deductions that wealthy taxpayers can claim. Faced with a tax plan that shifted the burden to the middle class, Romney could change course – reducing the size of the marginal reductions, say.
But as long as the Romney campaign doesn’t provide concrete tax specifics, the Obama camp will be happy to provide them for him, framing the plan in the worst possible light. For a voter, the most important question may not be whether this is fair. It might be this: Given the circumstances described, what do they think President Romney would actually do if he had to juggle things to make his numbers work?
Going into Wednesday’s debate, a number of commentators jokingly wondered “which Mitt Romney would show up.” A jab on Twitter by comedian Conan O’Brien (which was retweeted more than 8,000 times) was typical: "Romney prepped for tonight’s debate by debating with a man whose views differ radically from his own: himself from 8 years ago."
So in a way, the biggest shock was how utterly nonplussed President Obama seemed when he suddenly found himself standing onstage with … Mitt the Moderate.
Maybe it’s because that version of Mr. Romney had been missing for so long that the president was simply lulled into believing he might never return.
Really, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. It’s standard practice: Presidential candidates are forced to run to the right (or left) during the primary season – but as soon as they’ve secured the nomination, they begin pivoting back to the center.
But all summer long, the anticipated Romney pivot never seemed to happen. If anything, Romney seemed to be speaking more and more to the right wing – leading many to assume that his advisers were viewing this as a base election, trying to maximize turnout among partisans rather than appeal to independents.
So much for that theory. Wednesday night, on issue after issue, Romney hewed determinedly to the center, softening his positions on everything from taxes to regulation, often blurring distinctions between himself and Mr. Obama.
His tax plan? Romney insisted repeatedly that he would not give a net tax break to upper-income Americans, and that his tax plan would not add to the US deficit. “I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don't have a tax cut of a scale that you're talking about,” he said. “My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people.”
Tax breaks for oil companies like ExxonMobil? They’re “on the table.”
Medicare? He presented himself as the program's real protector: “I want to take that $716 billion you've cut and put it back into Medicare.”
Regulation of business? “Regulation is essential. You can't have a free market work if you don't have regulation.” In fact, the biggest problem with Dodd-Frank, according to Romney, was that it designated “five banks as too big to fail and [gave] them a blank check.”
Smartly, Romney also made Obama seem like the partisan one, attacking him for pushing through health-care reform “entirely on a partisan basis,” without a single Republican vote. He also didn’t run away from his health-care plan in Massachusetts at all.
It was like watching the Romney from 1994, back when he was running against Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy – except in this debate, probably fortunately for Romney, cultural issues never came up at all, so he wasn't forced to try to moderate any of those positions.
Of course, the question now is whether this one debate performance will be enough to reestablish Moderate Mitt as the image voters hold of Romney – or whether the more conservative candidate they saw for much of the campaign (which was reinforced by an unrelenting slew of Obama attack ads) is already set in stone?
You can bet that the Obama campaign will be working overtime in coming days to revive Conservative Mitt (and, maybe even more deadly, Phony Mitt). But many undecided voters may be willing to see Romney in a whole new light. After all, these days, reinventing yourself is the American Way. For voters who have been unhappy with Obama’s performance – but also put off by what they had seen up to now of Romney – what they saw onstage Wednesday night may well have been reassuring. At least one participant in CNN's focus group said afterward that she felt "relieved." For Obama, the return of Moderate Mitt could be a big problem.
Is Joe Biden the GOP’s new secret weapon?
That’s what the Mitt Romney presidential campaign appears to believe. It’s begun to publicize VP Biden’s twisted tongue moment of Tuesday, in which he said “the middle class ... has been buried the last four years,” in an attempt to turn the sitting Veep’s own words against his boss.
The Romney camp already has an ad up in which Biden is front and center. Titled “Couldn’t Say It Better,” it starts with about 15 seconds of clips of Romney and his VP candidate Rep. Paul Ryan saying that the “Obama economy” has crushed the middle class, workers are suffering, and so forth.
Then it cuts to Biden speaking Tuesday at a campaign appearance in Charlotte, N.C. “The middle class ... has been buried” he shouts to the crowd. Then comes a white screen, and a simple phrase, “We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.”
Top Romney surrogate Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was even more cutting at an appearance Wednesday in Colorado. He repeated Biden’s statement to a roomful of Republicans, then said, “He’s the best thing we’ve got going, guys. Because in a moment of clarity, in a brief moment of clarity, he told us what we already knew.”
Will this work? Well, Biden’s sentence certainly fits into the Romney campaign’s original strategy for the race. That was to hammer home the jobless numbers and tie them to President Obama’s stewardship of the economy.
There’s a presidential candidate debate Wednesday night in Denver – just in case you hadn’t heard – and it’s supposed to focus on economic issues. We’re pretty sure that some variation of “middle class” and “buried” will work its way into a pre-planned Romney zinger.
The problem for Romney is that his economic message alone hasn’t been carrying him toward victory. Lagging a few stubborn percentage points behind Obama in the polls, the former Massachusetts governor has had to broaden his approach, hitting the administration on its policies toward the Middle East and other foreign issues as he attempts to portray himself as a more forceful choice for the Oval Office.
Plus, voters in general don’t necessarily see the wealthy Romney as the best candidate to look out for the middle class’s interests. In a recent Washington Post/ABC News survey 66 percent of respondents said that Obama does more to favor the middle class than the wealthy. Only 35 percent made the same judgment about Romney.
Finally, it’s unlikely you’ll see the fuller context of the Biden “buried” quote in a GOP ad anytime soon. At the time he spoke those words, he was working up a dudgeon about Romney’s tax proposals, which the Obama campaign maintains inevitably would lead to a higher taxes for those in the middle.
“This is deadly earnest,” Biden told the North Carolina crowed. “How they can justify, how they can justify raising taxes on the middle class that has been buried the last four years? How in the Lord’s name can they justify raising their taxes? We’ve seen this movie before....”
Yes, this charge is itself based on a fairly tenuous analysis of Romney’s plans. But the GOP still has to shear off most of what Biden said to make his statement something they can use in their ads.
They're hoping for some political theater, hopefully some new insight into the candidates' views and policies and character, and perhaps a gaffe or game-changing moment.
But – while there may be some freewheeling conversation between Messrs. Obama and Romney – the debate itself is tightly scripted, with fairly strict rules.
Here's what you can expect:
How many questions will there be, and who chooses them?
In this first, 1-1/2-hour debate, there will be just six questions, all focused on domestic issues.
Moderator Jim Lehrer, of PBS Newshour, has already outlined what their basic thrust will be: three questions on the economy, one on health care, one on governing, and one on the role of government. Mr. Lehrer chooses the questions.
This is a change from past years, in which debates have typically had more questions and shorter discussion times. Lehrer, in part, advocated for the new format, and pushed to reduce the number of questions from nine to six, in the hopes that it would encourage more of a television talk-show approach, in which the candidates engage in discussion rather than just deliver talking points.
What are the rules of the debate?
Each question will have a 15-minute period devoted to it. After Lehrer asks the question, each candidate will get two minutes to respond. After that initial response, Lehrer can ask follow-up questions to provoke discussion between the two. The candidates will also have two minutes for closing statements.
The candidates cannot ask each other questions.
What about the rest of the debates?
In between, the debate commission will shake things up with a town-hall style debate on Oct. 16. In that debate, undecided voters selected by Gallup will ask the questions. Candidates will each get two minutes to respond, along with an additional minute for the moderator (CNN correspondent Candy Crowley) to facilitate a discussion.
The vice presidential debate on Oct. 11 will be more similar to the first and last debates, but with nine 10-minute segments that focus on both domestic and foreign policy. ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz is moderating.
How have the candidates been preparing?
Romney has been practicing in Massachusetts with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman as the Obama stand-in. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, meanwhile, has been acting as Romney in Obama's debate-prep sessions in Nevada.
Do newly released clips of a 2007 speech by then-Sen. Barack Obama show him using racially divisive language? That’s what conservatives are charging Wednesday after the right-leaning Daily Caller posted online the tape of the address, which Mr. Obama made to black clergy at Hampton University in Virginia.
In the speech Obama suggests that the Bush administration discriminated against hurricane Katrina victims by, among other things, not providing as generous terms for federal aid as Washington did to New York after 9/11 and to Florida after hurricane Andrew, because they were disproportionately minorities. That, he says, led to a “quiet riot” among US blacks in the storm's aftermath. He gives a shout-out of welcome to his then-pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. (The Rev. Mr. Wright’s racially tinged rhetoric caused Obama to later renounce their association.)
Overall, Obama delivered his words in a preacher-like style he has seldom used in other public forums. Conservatives say that is yet more evidence that in 2007 he was pandering to his audience.
The speech itself was widely covered in 2007, with CNN and the Associated Press filing reports, among other media outlets. Obama’s relationship with the controversial Wright was separately an item of intense media scrutiny during the last campaign. Mr. Carlson himself said he’d covered the address at the time.
But he and other conservatives said the media missed key parts of Obama’s Hampton University appearance, including the shout-out to Wright and other ad-libbed parts of the performance.
Still, Democrats denounced the tape as old news and as a transparent ploy to counter the “47 percent” tape of GOP nominee Mitt Romney saying at a fundraiser that almost half of Americans feel they are victims and are dependent on government largesse.
“I’m not even sure what it is, exactly, the right finds so noteworthy about the 2007 speech,” wrote liberal Steven Benan on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow blog. “Obama criticized the government’s response to Katrina? His speeches used a cadence Drudge found overtly racial? Obama mentioned his former pastor?”
In general, Democrats say the point of the whole thing is to reveal the not-astounding fact that Obama was, and remains, himself black.
Will a video from 2007 have much of an effect on the 2012 presidential election? Given that the first presidential debate is Wednesday night, news about this stuff will likely get buried soon. Plus, even some Republicans doubt that this is the sort of information that will change any voters' minds.
After all, Obama has been president now for four years. It’s mostly his performance in the White House that voters will weigh in deciding whether to rehire him for another four years. At this date, most Americans have fixed ideas about his governing style and personality. Relitigating the Wright controversy isn't going to change that.
“The Romney team is smart enough to know the video serves no useful purpose for its campaign. It is out to convince middle-class and blue-collar voters that Obama is a failure, not a radical. (They simply aren’t going to buy the latter.),” wrote conservative Jennifer Rubin Wednesday on her Right Turn blog at the Washington Post.
In that context, for the GOP the more politically useful event of Tuesday may be Vice President Joe Biden’s gaffe. The veep said, “the middle class has been buried the last four years” while decrying Mr. Romney’s proposed economic policies during a Virginia campaign appearance.
In regards to the 2007 video, the real target of conservative ire appears to be the mainstream media. The right sees the MSM as getting all worked up about alleged race-baiting on the part of Republicans, while ignoring Democratic appeals to race.
“The larger point here is that the media has a double standard on race, and a double standard for Republicans,” writes Ed Morrissey on the conservative Hot Air! website.
Reporters will be watching for many things at Wednesday night’s debate. But, hands down, the most eagerly anticipated element has got to be: Mitt Romney’s zingers.
Since then, the anticipation (and, yes, the mockery) has gone into overdrive.
IN PICTURES: US presidential debates
“Zingers. Because Americans need to know that their leader has a well-honed sense of zing,” deadpanned Stephen Colbert on Tuesday night’s “Colbert Report.” “On Day 1, our new president must be able to face Iran’s leader – and ask him if the place where he bought that shirt also has a men’s department.”
The challenge, of course, is that Mr. Romney has not exactly shown himself to be a zinger-ish kind of guy. So far, his most memorable lines from the campaign trail have all tended to fall more in the “gaffe” category. Like his recorded remarks about the 47 percent. Or his spontaneous offer of a $10,000 bet to Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R).
In The New Yorker, Nathaniel Stein imagined Romney’s debate preparations:
ROMNEY: I have some ideas for more zingers. How about, “I hate being able to fire people!”
AIDE: Hmm ... I like it, but I’m not quite sure if that’s right for the debate.
ROMNEY: No, you misheard me. “I hate being able to fire people.”
AIDE: No, I heard, but –
ROMNEY: O.K., here’s another. “You know what I just can’t get enough of? The forty-seven per cent of Americans who are blood-sucking victims. That’s the America I love.”
AIDE: Maybe we should stick to the list.
The truth is that Romney really could benefit from a good, well, zinger. He’s down in the polls – though not by a lot – so a debate win could go a long way toward helping him close the gap. And even more than a win, he could use one memorable “moment” (another overused word) that draws a big crowd reaction and sticks in voters’ minds.
The problem, however, is that zingers are inherently risky. If they’re too transparently cooked up, or badly delivered, they’ll fall flat. Which would definitely be worse than no zinger at all.
Romney is capable of being funny. In recent remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative, after being introduced by former President Clinton, he drew genuine laughs when he said: "If there's one thing we've learned this election season, it's that a few words from Bill Clinton can do any man a lot of good. After that introduction, I guess all I have to do is wait a day or two for the bounce."
He also can deliver a forceful retort. During one GOP primary debate, when Governor Perry declared that former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than Romney, Romney came back with: “Well, as a matter of fact, George W. Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, governor.” At another debate, he delivered a punchy attack on former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, over his support for earmarks: “While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere.”
To some extent, we’ve begun wondering if all the discussion of zingers has made it almost impossible for any candidate to produce a good one. At this point, even the famous historic debate zingers – “I'm paying for this microphone,” “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” “Where’s the beef?” – have been replayed so many times that they’ve become clichéd.
So, the anticipation continues to build. Will Romney be able to deliver? Will his zingers be funny? Sarcastic? Painfully awkward?
Or will he, at this point, decide that he can’t possibly live up to all the hype – and forgo zingers altogether? It would probably be the safer option. The press corps, however, would be sorely disappointed.
Joe Biden on Tuesday said the middle class “has been buried the last four years,” words Republicans trumpeted as evidence that even President Obama’s veep doesn’t believe the incumbent administration has been good for the country.
“Of course the middle class has been buried. They’re being buried by regulations, they’re being buried by taxes, they’re being buried by borrowing,” said Mr. Ryan. “They’re being buried by the Obama administration’s economic failures.”
Will this gaffe matter in the end? We have our doubts, though we’ve been wrong before.
First let’s look at the full context of Biden’s statement. Speaking to a crowd in North Carolina, Veep Joe repeated the administration’s claim that if elected Mr. Romney will have to raise taxes on the middle class in order to make the math of his tax proposals work.
“This is deadly earnest. How they can justify, how they can justify raising taxes on the middle class that has been buried the last four years? How in the Lord’s name can they justify raising their taxes? We’ve seen this movie before....“
Yes, Biden stepped in it, in the sense that he produced a phrase the Romney folks can snip out and use in attack ads. The reality is the US economy isn’t great, and his boss is going to be very unhappy with Biden for pointing that out. Republicans will certainly use this to try to counter Democratic attacks on Romney for his comments at a fundraiser that depicted 47 percent of America as self-perceived victims hooked on government aid.
But Biden’s main point was that he doesn’t approve of Romney’s tax plan. He believes it will hurt the middle class. His inartful phrase detracts from that, but Biden and inartful go together like ham and eggs, or Delaware and highway tolls. (See “chains,” as in something the GOP will put you back in, which Biden said in August to a largely minority audience.)
So will voters see this as a game-changer, or Joe being Joe? We figure that will split along partisan lines without really moving truly uncommitted voters in the middle.
Generally speaking, gaffes, flubs, or verbal blow-ups don’t move polls much anyway. They’re shiny baubles that are fun for the press and political junkies, but nothing but a crumpled piece of tinfoil for everyone else. The “47 percent” stuff may have moved polls a percentage point or two, but that would be an exception to a general rule.
Plus, if Biden is going to wound himself with his own rhetoric, this week would be a good time. There’s a presidential debate Wednesday, in case you haven’t heard. The news from that is likely to overshadow Biden’s “middle class buried” words. At least it will overshadow it until Oct. 11, when the vice presidential debate will take place in Danville, Ky. At that point we’re pretty sure Ryan will bring it up again. Maybe even in his opening statement.
Do presidential debates sway voters? Or are they political entertainment that just affirm electoral choices Americans have already made?
Mitt Romney hopes they’re the former. He and his campaign are looking to Wednesday night’s debate in Denver as a way to overcome President Obama’s stubborn lead in the polls. Romney supporter Gov. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey has gone so far as to predict that the outcome of the verbal tussle will turn the race upside down.
If so, that will be out of step with the historical trend, say some pollsters and political scientists.
Gallup, for instance, has gone back through a half century of its polling results and found only a few examples of presidential debates that made an impact on election outcomes.
There have been nine sets of presidential debates since 1960, points out Gallup. (Lyndon Johnson refused to debate in 1964, and Richard Nixon followed suit in 1968 and 1972.) In only two of these nine political cycles did the candidate who trailed prior to the debates come from behind to win.
And those two were perhaps the most famously close elections of the past 60 years. In 1960, then-Vice President Richard Nixon was up by one percentage point when he met Sen. John F. Kennedy in the first televised presidential debate on Sept. 26. By the time of the fourth debate, in late October, Mr. Nixon trailed Senator Kennedy by four points.
Ultimately, Kennedy won the popular vote in 1960 by 0.2 percentage points.
In 2000, then-VP Al Gore led George W. Bush by eight percentage points right before their first debate, in October, according to Gallup’s records. The first three days after the event, Gallup polls showed the race tied.
Mr. Gore came back a little bit prior to the next debate, only to fall back again. The same pattern held for the third debate. Ultimately Mr. Bush prevailed in an election so close it was, in essence, decided by a Supreme Court ruling.
“The debates were less likely to be catalyst events in years when one candidate was a strong front-runner, including 1984, 1988, and 1996,” writes Gallup analyst Lydia Saad.
The reasons for that are fairly obvious, according to George Washington University associate professor of political science John Sides. Presidential candidates tend to be fairly evenly matched in terms of capability, preparation, and political experience. Over a series of debates, neither is likely to be able to dominate the other so thoroughly that undecided or wavering voters will judge them a superior possible president.
Even if polls do move during a debate period, it can be hard to determine whether the debates themselves were the cause of the movement, or whether they were the result of other events, such as overseas crises or economic troubles.
“What history can tell us is that presidential debates, while part of how the game is played, are rarely what decide the game itself,” writes Mr. Sides in an article on debate effects in the Washington Monthly.
But “rarely” isn’t the same as “never." And it’s possible that 2012 could be an outlier in this historical data set.
First of all, the election is close. It’s close enough so that one stray gaffe might send just enough voters fleeing to the other guy. And the media environment surrounding the debate is different as well. The Twitter-fueled political news cycle is faster and more ferocious than ever, meaning that any perceived victor or loser could find their gain or loss exaggerated by the sheer volume of media hype.
Don’t think so? We’ve got one word for you: “oops." That’s what Texas Gov. Rick Perry said when he fumbled an answer in a GOP primary debate, if you recall. It’s true that wasn’t a general election debate, but if any single moment sealed a candidate’s fate this cycle, that was it. Governor Perry never recovered.