Tonight, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger (and the former governor of Massachusetts) Mitt Romney will face off in an attempt to convince voters their vision for the future of the republic is superior to their competitor’s vision. All the hype and attention the presidential debates receive begs novice and policy viewers alike to ask a fundamental question: do the presidential debates matter? And if they do, what will their role be in the course of the 2012 presidential election?
A simple explanation to the above question is that debates certainly do matter, and that they can (and do) affect the outcomes of elections. But the real answer is a bit more complicated than that — especially in the year 2012.
Ronald Reagan famously sealed his presidential fate when he asked the American public if they “were better off than they were four years ago." At the time, Reagan was polling near even (or in some cases behind) with then-President Jimmy Carter. But that final moment of the last debate between the two men took Reagan’s numbers into the political stratosphere, and resulted in his eventual landslide victory in the 1980 presidential election.
While this example may lead the reader to believe that debates do have great consequences, we must also consider the debates within the contemporary political climate.
This time around, relatively few voters are still undecided. The president, for better or for worse, is one of those politicians who is either loved or despised by voters. Few are indifferent towards him anymore. This means that Romney has a very small margin for error. There is no question that the former Bay State governor comes into Denver as the clear underdog. In order for him to make this debate worth his while, he needs to have a very strong performance. He needs to make a very plain case to the American people as to why he deserves to be president.
The timing of this year's debates also lends greater importance to the first debate. Unlike in elections past, a record number of Americans will opt into voting early in their respective states. Politicians now can’t rely on an “October Surprise” to bounce back, as early polling now matters now more than ever. Romney can’t wait much longer to get his act together; he needs to make a substantial impact on a relatively few number of voters tonight.
Obama can win this debate (and possibly this election) by playing defense. He does not need to take many gambles tonight. He would be wise to let Romney attack him and brush off any zingers, all the while appearing as presidential as possible.
Both Obama and Romney are skilled debaters, though the former hasn’t debated in four years, and the latter hasn’t debated a Democrat in a decade. While these handicaps might make the first thirty minutes or so a bit rough for both sides, I do not expect either candidate to become too flustered.
The debates do still matter to the 2012 presidential election, but they are being conducted in a different context than the debates of years past. If the debates are anything less than a stalemate, then expect Obama to continue to pull ahead of his Republican rival. If Romney can make a great impression on the few Americans who are still undecided, then the game is still on.
PolicyMic will be covering the presidential debate live tonight, with many popular pundits weighing in on the debate's progress. For real-time analysis and high quality coverage, see here.
For reference, information about the 2012 debate schedule is provided below.
Time: 9PM EST
Location: University of Denver (Colorado)
Moderator: Jim Lehrer (PBS)
Topic: Domestic Policy
Second Debate (Vice Presidential Debate):
Date: October 11th
Time: 9PM EST
Location: Centre College (Kentucky)
Moderator: Martha Raddatz (ABC)
Third Debate (Town-Hall Style Debate):
Date: October 16th
Time: 9PM EST
Location: Hofstra University (New York)
Moderator: Candy Crowley (CNN)
Topics: Domestic and Foreign Affairs
Date: October 22nd
Time: 9PM EST
Lynn University (Florida)
Moderator: Bob Schieffer (CBS)
Topic: Foreign Policy