Obama vs. Romney: And now for the debates

By J Brooks Spector 10 September 2012

The kids are back in school, the beach gear is finally packed away for another year, and the Democratic and Republican conventions are over. J BROOKS SPECTOR finally got some sleep, and now takes a look ahead at the final eight weeks of the US presidential campaign.

 If you live in Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin you are going to see a whole lot of the presidential candidates on your local television stations, at your nearest shopping mall and in some of your favourite restaurants and coffee bars. If you have the courage to use the Internet or dare open your snail mail, you are likely to be deluged by messages urging you to vote for (or against) a candidate (or about one of those conservative hot-button issues most of the SuperPACs are up in arms about) – especially if you’ve ever been foolish enough to tell anyone you were a political independent or an undecided voter. 

After the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, adjourned, the latest Gallup Poll reported that (in contrast to results after the Republicans’ conclave) Barack Obama registered a modest but real bounce from his party’s meeting. Gallup’s tracking polls, carried out over the period 4-6 September, give the president a 52% approval rating, the highest level since the death of Osama bin Laden more than a year ago.

These results gave Obama a 7-point increase on his earlier level of 45% for the period of 1-3 September. Of course, the usual caveats apply about sampling error and margin of error, but, for Democrats this was good news, especially as it came almost immediately after more unpleasant news about the still-spluttering economy. August surveys found slightly lower unemployment levels but some still-thoroughly anaemic job creation data – well below the number of jobs needed to absorb people entering the national work force.

Meanwhile, Reuters checked in with the report that “Obama, picking up support following the Democratic National Convention, widened his narrow lead over … Romney in a new Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Saturday. The latest daily tracking poll showed Obama … with a lead of 4 percentage points over Romney. Forty-seven percent of 1,457 likely voters surveyed online over the previous four days said they would vote for Obama if the Nov. 6 elections were held today, compared with 43% for Romney. ‘The bump is actually happening. I know there was some debate whether it would happen … but it’s here,’ said Ipsos pollster Julia Clark, referring to the ‘bounce’ in support that many presidential candidates enjoy after nominating conventions.”

Gallup also reported an uptick for Obama in its tracking of the presidential vote preference question. Friday results showed Obama with a 3-point lead over Romney (48% to 45%). While this is an upward movement of a single point for Obama and a single one down for Romney, it is the first change in Gallup’s numbers in nine days. From 28 August to 5 September, Gallup showed Obama ahead of Romney by a single point (47% to 46%).

Of course, the final poll reported on 6 November will be the only one that counts, but in the meantime, campaign strategists are watching the trends in tracking polls very carefully – especially as they get broken down state by state. This is vital in helping direct advertising spending, private polling on specific issues and voter groups, scheduling candidate appearances to best advantage, spending on personnel resources for phone banks and door-to-door canvassing and, most especially, going forward into the debate season – how the candidates will frame their public messages.

While the “who would you vote for if the election were held today” question is moving less than the approval ratings for Obama, analysts argue that if the Gallup people are detecting movement on responses on who those polled would vote for, and if that trend continues, the overall projections would continue shifting Obama’s way for the real election. 

Well, of course one swallow doesn’t make a spring, and while most other tracking polls have not yet picked up an appreciable pro-Obama bounce, the latest Reuters/Ipsos online poll also saw a “convention induced bounce”. Reuters announced Obama had gained a 46% to 44% lead among likely voters within the last five days, even though only a week before that it had found a 45/45 split. There is still that tantalizing 10% undecided/no opinion that lies just beyond the reach of the two candidates – so far – and so that is where the battle lies.

So, with this head-to-head polling still pointing to a very close race, the two candidates are trying to tighten the messages they and their supporters articulated during the conventions – once they have tested the voter responses to such messages. Much of this effort will be in support of preparation for four upcoming head-to-head debates, three between the two presidential candidates and one between the two vice presidential aspirants. All are scheduled to take place in October.  

These American presidential candidate debates take their modern form from the face-offs between Massachusetts Democratic Senator John F Kennedy and sitting Vice President Richard M Nixon in the 1960 election. The Museum of Broadcast Communications explained the significance of these debates by noting,  “The Great Debates marked television’s grand entrance into presidential politics. They afforded the first real opportunity for voters to see their candidates in competition, and the visual contrast was dramatic. In August, Nixon had seriously injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate he was still 20 pounds underweight, his pallor still poor. He arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused make-up to improve his colour and lighten his perpetual ‘5:00 o’clock shadow.’ Kennedy, by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tan and confident and well rested. ‘I had never seen him looking so fit,’ Nixon later wrote.

“In substance, the candidates were much more evenly matched. Indeed, those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner. But the 70 million who watched television saw a candidate still sickly and obviously discomforted by Kennedy’s smooth delivery and charisma. Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard. Studies of the audience indicated that, among television viewers, Kennedy was perceived the winner of the first debate by a very large margin.”

These debates had an enormous impact on campaign planners thereafter, even though the next televised presidential debate didn’t happen until 1976. This 16-year hiatus occurred because candidates were now thoroughly cowed by the wild card influence of television, given what had happened in 1960. Lyndon Johnson declined to debate Barry Goldwater in 1964 because he was intimidated by the medium, then Richard Nixon, having been so thoroughly burned by his experiences in 1960, refused to take part in debates in either of the 1968 or ’72 elections – preferring to wage a campaign managed by PR experts with smoothly scripted “citizen encounters” to give a pseudo-reality flavour to his campaign.

Eventually, however, televised debates came back in favour in 1976 when incumbent President Gerald Ford (the previously appointed vice president who had taken over after Nixon had been forced to resign) agreed to head-to-head debates with Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter. Thereafter, debates became standard practice every four years – first between candidates in the primaries and then for the nominees for the November general election.

The topic for the first debate, on 3 October, will be American domestic policy and it will take place at the University of Denver. It will be moderated by Jim Lehrer, the long-time host of the NewsHour on the PBS network. Lehrer is a veteran of 11 televised debates. 

The prime time debate will be divided into six segments of approximately 15 minutes each, and the candidates will address topics preselected by the moderator and announced in advance. Lehrer will ask a question and the two candidates will have two minutes each to address that point. Thereafter, the remaining time will be allocated to further discussion of the question at hand between the candidates.  

The second debate, on 11 October, will be between the two vice presidential candidates, Vice President Joe Biden and Representative Paul Ryan. It will cover both foreign and domestic issues and will be moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC News.

The third debate, on 16 October, will be in the “town meeting” format and moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley. Attendees at this event will be able to ask questions of the two candidates on both foreign and domestic issues and candidates will have two minutes to respond to these questions. The Gallup Organization will select attendees from among previously identified undecided voters.

The final debate, on 22 October, will focus on foreign policy and moderated by veteran CBS newsman Bob Schieffer will moderate this event and its format will follow that of the first debate.

(Almost immediately after the debate schedule was announced, although many hailed it for including two women among the four moderators, others attacked it as failing to include any Hispanic or African-American moderators.)

Given the tight race so far, these debates may well have a particularly important role on the opinions of still-undecided voters. Still, these debates will not be “no holds bared”, verbal slug fests; nor will they likely take on the rhetorical quality of the seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 over an Illinois senate seat. Those debates often featured speeches lasting an hour or more and the format allowed the two candidates to question each other directly and often included sustained heckling from the audience. Lincoln lost the election, but he ultimately won the argument – longer term – over preserving the Union and eventually abolishing slavery. In the process, those debates became the stuff of political legend and the touchstone for every American political debate sequence since.

This time around, as will have been the case in other recent presidential debates, the candidates will have practiced for days with a doppelganger standing in for their opponent. The practices will be sustained efforts; any slip of the tongue or inadvertent comment – or even movement – could have serious repercussions for the election. The political graveyard is littered with the results from Gerald Ford’s odd assertion in 1976 that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union; Al Gore’s hyperventilating sighs that evinced his impatience with his opponent; and George HW Bush’s sneak peek at his watch to see how much longer was left in his debate. After losing that election, Bush later said he had been thinking at the time,  “Only 10 more minutes of this crap.” Voters clearly got the message and gave him one in return. 

On the other hand, of course, there was Kennedy’s tanned, composed demeanour and visible energy in contrast to Nixon’s pallor and exhaustion; or Ronald Reagan’s telling “I will not let my opponent’s youth and inexperience” retort turn public perceptions about him around versus his then-leading opponent, Walter Mondale.  

And so, to prepare for these face-offs, Mitt Romney has already spent several days in secluded practice sessions with Ohio Senator Rob Portman standing in for Barack Obama, while the real Obama will practice with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry in the role of Romney. The very format itself may in fact help Romney. He has, after all, been in well over a dozen debates in various formats with various combinations of opponents throughout the primaries, while Obama hasn’t had to do this kind of thing for some four years.

Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and the author of Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV, explained to the AP that the presidential debates are a high-stakes game that calls for a special dynamic. Candidates need to be respectful, differing in opinion but avoiding any impression that it’s personal. Schroeder added, “In 2008, the first debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, one of the takeaways was McCain did not make eye contact with Obama. That came off as rude, disrespectful.”

And so a key element of the practice sessions before the real thing is to sort out how and when to be aggressive, when to demonstrate leadership and when to deploy their carefully scripted zingers so that they sound, well, spontaneous rather than thoroughly scripted. As a result, a key part of the practice sessions comes in figuring out when to be aggressive and when, and how, to demonstrate that intangible but real sense of leadership. 

Practice sessions also focus on figuring out how to mine the best lines from all those months of stump speeches so that voters hear those lines over and over again as sound bites from the debates circulate on television newscasts, on YouTube and other social media outlets.  Many voters will, in fact, only see these short excerpts, rather than watch the full run of the debates

What might be key things to watch for in these debates? Expect Romney to key in on the questions his campaign first posed at their convention – whether voters feel things are better now than four years ago, that number of 23-million unemployed, a national debt of $16-trillion and the “we built it” tagline that has been built on an edited comment by Obama that was meant to point to the government’s role in supporting entrepreneurial efforts. Romney will undoubtedly find a way to work in a variant of his line, “Free enterprise has done more to lift people out of poverty, to help build a strong middle class, to help educate our kids, to make our lives better, than all of the government programs put together.”

On the other hand, anticipate the president will repeat the fact that 4.6-million jobs have been created since he took office after recession-driven job losses had reached 800,000 a month during his predecessor’s administration. He will almost certainly speak to the reduction in the average middle class family’s tax bill by around $3,600, as well as his take on that government/private enterprise’s relationship. And he also will respond to that “we built this” tagline with some variant of, “As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.” Or, tying domestic and foreign policy successes together, Obama will re-circulate – probably more than once – his vice president’s bumper sticker formula: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”

In the questions they ask the candidates, potential voters and moderators will undoubtedly push for specifics on proposed changes in the government budget, taxes, promises to create jobs, their differences on health care, the future of Medicare, same-sex marriage, immigration law and right to life/freedom of choice concerns. And all of this leaves aside how the two candidates will frame their ideas on foreign policy, national security and defence – and how they will assail their opponent on these topics.

When the two presidential candidates finally get to talk about foreign policy on 22 October – the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, by the way – Obama will be in a comfort zone unusual for Democrats in the post-Vietnam era. Obama has been gaining a thumbs-up from Americans on foreign policy issues. As a result, look to Obama to thoroughly work the furrow of his administration’s giving Osama bin Laden the coup de grace, the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, his carefully structured relationship with China, and a restating of his acceptance speech line regarding Romney and Ryan that said they “are new to foreign policy, but from all that we’ve seen and heard, they want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly.” Romney in the meantime will hammer away with his view that the Obama administration has “thrown Israel under a bus” and failed to resolve Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions to American (and Israeli) advantage, and, as he told the American Israel Political Action Committee, “In a Romney administration, there will be no gap between our nations or between our leaders.”

And on purely defence issues, expect to hear the GOP candidate argue that Obama plans damaging cuts in the military budget, while Obama will counter than Romney wants to expand the military budget even more than the generals want – and Romney wants to do this even as he insists he wants to cut taxes and the rest of the government budget as well.

In the time before the debates, it will be important to watch carefully how the shrinking but crucial pool of undecided voters in the biggest battleground states – Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Wisconsin – finally begin to settle on their choices. Will the Obama administration’s decision to rescue the automobile industry in 2009 finally make Ohio go blue and keep Michigan there as well? Will the Republicans’ presumed plans to “voucher-ise” Medicare when they come to power push Florida’s crucial older voters towards the Democrats – or will Romney’s often-repeated unwavering support for Israel’s current policies nudge just enough of Florida’s many Jewish voters into pushing that state into the Republican column instead? Stay close, The Daily Maverick is going to watch it all and let you know. DM

Read more:

  • Commission on Presidential Debates official website
  • “Gallup Poll Shows Bump In Approval For Obama After Convention,” on the Huffington Post 
  • “Fall’s must-see political TV: Obama-Romney debates,” AP
  • “Five Crucial Factors to Watch, Just 58 Days From the Election,” on The New York Times
  • “Obama hits Romney with new Medicare study,” AP
  • “Conventions May Put Obama in Front-Runner’s Position,” on The New York Times
  • “Race may be down to a handful of unknowns, AP
  •  “Obama out to renew magic; Romney hits defense cuts,” AP
  • “2012 Presidential Debate Moderators: Candy Crowley, Jim Lehrer, Bob Schieffer and Martha Raddatz Chosen,” on the Huffington Post
  • ‘Presidential Debate Moderators: Gwen Ifill ‘Livid’ At Snub, Chorus Of Protests Continues Over Diversity,” on the Huffington Post
  • “The Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debates, 1960,” on the Museum of Broadcast Communications website 

Photo by Reuters



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