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Debate will be Romney's chance to alter trajectory of the race

Ron Edmonds / AP

President Ronald Reagan, left, and Democratic candidate Walter Mondale shake hands at the start of the second round of the 1984 Presidential debate in Kansas City, Mo., on Sunday, Oct. 21, 1984.

“We can’t afford another four years like the last four years,” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tells viewers in his new TV ad. And Wednesday’s debate may be Romney’s best opportunity to get Americans to agree with that claim.

More than 52 million people will be watching, if next week’s prime-time audience matches the viewership of the first debate four years ago between Barack Obama and John McCain.

If even one percent of viewers change their minds (and their votes), that number of people – let’s say 525,000 voters altogether – could be enough to nudge the election in competitive states like Colorado and Ohio.

Romney goes into the debate trailing Obama in both national polling and polls in battlegrounds such as Ohio.

A Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll in Ohio released Wednesday showed Romney 10 points behind Obama among likely voters. Even as feeble as the economy is – with a record high number of long-term unemployed Americans since the Labor Depart began keeping statistics in 1948 – that survey showed voters evenly divided on whether they’re better off or worse off than they were four years ago.

If Obama is on a trajectory to victory, as recent polls seem to indicate, then, like Bill Clinton when he ran for re-election in 1996, it’s in the incumbent’s interest to have the debates be anti-climactic.

Timothy A. Clary / AFP/Getty Images

Republican challanger Bob Dole and President Bill Clinton shake hands after their first debate on Oct. 6, 1996 in Hartford, Conn.

“We didn’t want them (the voters) to pay attention,” Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos explained at a Harvard Institute of Politics conference of campaign managers and pollsters a month Clinton defeated Republican Bob Dole in 1996. “The (Clinton-Dole) debates were a metaphor for the campaign. We wanted the debates to be a non-event.”

Conversely Dole’s advisers wanted their candidate to goad Clinton into an angry outburst. “We thought that if we could push the button enough times and Clinton responded to Dole, it would have created an issue that didn’t exist (before),” said Dole’s pollster Tony Fabrizio. 

Tad Devine, an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry in 2004 when he, like Romney this year and Dole in 1996, was trying to oust an incumbent president, George W. Bush, said “our goal was to get back in the race” when Kerry went into that first debate on Sept. 30, 2004, eight points behind Bush in the Gallup poll.

Kerry tried to do that by “being appropriately aggressive against the president” and “to challenge him in the area which was allegedly his area of expertise … to go in and show the president as someone who was out of touch with the course of events in Iraq and around the world,” Devine said. “That’s why, for example, John was able to challenge the president for confusing Osama bin Laden with Saddam Hussein and point out to him they were not the same guy.”

Kevork Djansezian / AP

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., shakes hands with President George W. Bush after the third and final presidential debate in Tempe, Ariz., Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2004.

By Oct. 3, 2004, Gallup showed the race tied. “That movement in the polling can be attributed in large measure to Kerry’s performance in the first debate,” Devine said.

But Bush regained his lead by the middle of October. At the end of final debate, on Oct. 13, 2004, Kerry went off-message with a remark about the sexual orientation of Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter, Mary.

But Devine said, “It became particularly clear afterwards that that election was defined not so much by what was happening in the country in 2004, but by what happened to the country on Sept. 11, 2001. The Sept. 11 attacks were the overhang of that campaign, they defined the campaign and when that bin Laden video turned up the Friday before the election, I think that more than any single event probably determined the outcome of the election.”

Devine said in the first debate on Wednesday Romney has to “re-set the race and make up enormous ground. If Mitt Romney cannot get a second look from voters in this debate, then he’s going to have a real hard time keeping his own party together. That’s the great threat he faces right now.”

As you’d expect, there’s a parallel effort on the Republican side to play down both the significance of the debate and Romney’s skill as a debater.

In an interview Tuesday with NBC’s Garrett Haake, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who has been playing Obama in Romney’s debate practice sessions, said the Democratic incumbent has “been through a lot of those one-on-one debates with a Republican. Mitt has not. When you think about it, he hasn't had a real debate in ten years (when he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002).” 

For the record, Romney turned in a strong performance in his last general election debate with a Democratic opponent, his Oct. 29, 2002 showdown with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shannon O’Brien, coming across as relaxed, specific, and forceful.

But there may be a tendency to overstate the impact of debates because we tend to fixate on “telling” moments that stick in our minds.

The model is Vice President Richard Nixon’s disastrous first encounter with Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960. Almost everything went wrong for Nixon, including his decision to go without professional makeup despite his five-o’clock shadow and his weight loss caused by illness. Nixon was “glowering and occasionally haggard-looking to the point of sickness,” said journalist Theodore H. White in The Making of the President 1960.

Sept. 26: Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon are shown following the first nationally televised presidential debate.

According to the moderator of that first debate, Howard K. Smith, Nixon knew when he showed up that night that “he should not have agreed to debate. He was downcast. He knew it was a mistake.”

But careful study of polling data doesn’t bear out the expectation that debates will be campaign-altering events.

Political scientist John Sides at George Washington University writes that “When it comes to shifting enough votes to decide the outcome of the election, presidential debates have rarely, if ever, mattered.”

He cites research by political scientist James Stimson and others that finds no presidential debate from 1960 to 2000 caused a substantial shift in voter sentiment.

“At best, debates provide a ‘nudge’ in very close elections like 1960, 1980, or 2000,” Sides said.

In 1980, for example, Ronald Reagan had a very slight lead in polls going into his one debate with President Jimmy Carter and came out of the debate with a slightly bigger, but still small lead in polling. “The debate seemed to matter, but it mainly nudged Reagan even further toward victory,” Sides said.

A record 80.6 million people watched that Carter-Reagan standoff.

The decisive factor may have been the Reagan team’s insistence on trying to include third-party candidate John Anderson in the debates, which Carter refused to agree to – and then delaying an agreement with the Carter team until late in the campaign. Only one debate took place – just a week before Election Day.

Carter’s hyperbolic warnings about Reagan’s “extremely dangerous and belligerent” approach toward nuclear weapons didn’t seem to persuade voters – perhaps because Carter’s words didn’t match Reagan’s affable and calm appearance on the TV screen.

In his White House diary, Carter cites not only the debate but “massive slippage” in his support in the polls in the campaign’s final weeks “as people realized the hostages (held by Iran) were not coming home." As political scientist Sides notes, “debates aren’t the only thing that voters are hearing and seeing in the weeks before the election.”

Despite the lack of evidence of debates having a decisive effect on elections, the possibility of extemporaneous brilliance or blundering is always there. 

Debates often prompt their own debates over what might have been – for example, what if Reagan had not recovered from his sometimes halting performance in his first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984.

“Reagan struggled today to regain his campaign stride after a debate that his strategists acknowledged probably boosted the political fortunes of Walter F. Mondale,” The Washington Post reported two days after the men’s first debate. “One adviser … conceded that Reagan may have appeared tired and showed his 73 years during the closing stretch of the 100-minute debate, which ran 10 minutes over schedule.”

In a 1984 presidential debate in Kansas City, Kan., the oldest U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, pokes fun at the role age is playing in the race.

The Miami Herald reported that “his occasionally stumbling performance … including groping for words, malapropisms and an awkward silence during one answer late in the debate in which he seemed to lose his train of thought” had raised the age issue.

Reagan was still much further ahead of Mondale after that first debate than Obama is ahead of Romney today. Reagan’s 1984 pollster Richard Wirthlin told the Washington Post that “the president's 18-percentage-point lead could slip to 12 or 13 points by week's end” after the first debate.

Reagan saved the day in the return bout. With a straight face, the Hollywood veteran recited the joke that most people recall: “I will not make age an issue … I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.”

Debate revisionism, the tendency to rewrite history to conform to a story line, sometimes muddles history.

The odd incident which most people recall from the Reagan-Mondale debates – an episode that reminded people of Reagan’s advanced age – was his meandering recollection, “I remember driving down the California coast one day … .”

But that “senior moment” came at the very end of the second of the two debates with Mondale – after Regan had already defused concerns about his age with his joke earlier in the debate.