Predictions for the Debates

At one time, debates between political candidates were significantly less common. While Senate candidates and presidential primary candidates had debated before, the 1960 presidential election was the first time that the two major party nominees debated. It could well have been the last. While Republican Richard Nixon probably outperformed Democrat JFK, “Tricky Dick” was a victim of the television set. Many more Americans watched the debate on T.V. than listened to it on the radio. These viewers got to see the handsome, sunny-faced JFK debate Nixon not long after the latter had suffered a knee injury and a bout with the flu. Chastened by his razor-thin loss, Nixon did not debate his Democratic adversaries in the 1968 and 1972 elections. In the 1964 election, Barry Goldwater stated during the primaries that it would be detrimental to national security for an incumbent president to debate. LBJ followed Goldwater’s advice and refused to debate him in the general election. Finally, in 1976, Ford and Carter debated, making the practice a presidential election tradition. So what can we expect to see in the upcoming Obama-Romney debates? Well, in 2008, Obama was judged to have won all three debates against John McCain. So we all know now that President Obama can debate well. What about Mitt Romney? In the primaries, he and Rick Perry developed a very adversarial relationship. At one point, they began arguing about whether or not Romney had passed a law more or less equivalent to ObamaCare while serving as governor. This should have been a slam-dunk for Perry, since Romney had signed a law that specifically required people to buy health insurance against their will. However, Mitt Romney still decisively beat Rick Perry in that exchange. Perhaps one of the primary signs of a good debater is someone who can win an argument when they are wrong. This is what Mitt Romney did in his health care debate against Perry. However, President Obama is no Rick Perry. Rick Perry cannot speak off the cuff to save a life. He is about as articulate as a monkey with a toothache. Bill Maher summed it up quite accurately when he suggested that Republicans thought Perry was a great candidate until he started to talk. So defeating Barack Obama in the debates is going to be tough for Mitt Romney. I predict that Obama and Romney will be more or less evenly matched. Neither man is likely to take these debates lightly. President Obama knows that he has, if polls are to be believed, a lead over Mitt Romney that he can ill afford to lose. Mitt Romney is almost sure to have seen Obama outperform McCain in three consecutive debates and therefore knows that he must be at the top of his game to have any chance of winning. He must also be aware that, with his poll numbers in a bad spot, anything less than a phenomenal debate performance is likely to help cost him the election. At the beginning of the debate, we will see a rather ridiculous handshake that will feel quite disingenuous. Unlike the handshake between the 6’2″ George H.W. Bush and the 5’8″ Michael Dukakis, this handshake will be unlikely to impact the election, since Obama and Romney are almost exactly the same height. We will then see little else in the way of politeness. Expect at least one of the candidates to interrupt the other. I personally think moderators should carry megaphones to restore order in cases when candidates refuse to wait their turns to speak. Expect some anecdotes from both candidates designed to back up their points. Do not expect the anecdotes to give the whole story. Expect there to be some argument about the “47%” statement. One area where we can expect to see a different set of debates than we did in 2008 will be in the area of gay rights. In 2008, both Obama and McCain avoided taking strong stands either for or against gay rights. As a result, from what I remember, the topic never came up in their debates. In 2012, the differences between the candidates in this area are much more noticeable. If Romney is smart, he will steer the conversation away from this subject very quickly, since it is one that Obama can demolish him on. But I would not be too surprised if Romney is determined to win the “Value Voters” and proverbially walks right into President Obama’s fist. Another thing that could cost Mitt Romney if he is not careful is appearing snobby. Both George H.W. Bush and Al Gore are sometimes said to have lost because viewers believed that they showed pomposity. People have sometimes called President Obama an elitist, but in this election, the general public clearly finds him more personally appealing than Romney. On a final note, as an Obama supporter, I am not looking forward to the Biden-Ryan debates. Microphones and Joe Biden go together much like oil and water. I suspect that Biden will not perform nearly as well President Obama. Still, Biden and Ryan are not the ones running for president. The vice presidential debate is unlikely to impact the general election, unless Ryan shoves a nonagenarian, Biden starts screaming profanity at a conservative audience member, or something else equally outrageous.

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