Can Debates Swing the Election?
The voters seem evenly divided today, and there are only a few things which can move public sentiment prior to November. The economy is already bad, but if it gets worse -- and is perceived as getting worse -- that could shift votes. Obama could plan an "October surprise" in the international arena, as Donald Trump has suggested, but the very modest blip after the death of Osama bin Laden and the war-weariness of Americans make that a dubious ploy which could easily fail. Romney's choice of a running mate will likely give him a brief blip in support as well, but it looks today as if there is nothing to really change voters much before November...except for the presidential debates.
Conventional wisdom is that the presidential debates are not that important, but that is not necessarily true. Nixon in 1960 lost the election because of poor makeup in his debates with JFK. Ford may well have lost in 1976 by stating that Poland was not under Soviet domination. Reagan's "There you go again" might have turned a close race into the landslide of 1980. Al Gore's intimidating lurch towards Bush in 2000 seems to have shifted votes as well. There have been televised debates in ten presidential elections, and about half the time, those debates seem to have made a difference.
If the debates swing voters, almost certainly those votes will move to Romney, for several different reasons. As Herman Cain recently noted, Romney is much more experienced that Obama. Romney has participated in more televised political debates over a longer period of time, through a wider spectrum of races, than Obama. Romney's life experiences are broader than the leftist academic and Chicago machine politics of Obama. Romney, viewed fairly by conservatives who did not want him as their nominee, should be a much more effective debater against Obama than McCain was in 2008.
Romney also has a valuable ace and has shown a willingness to play that ace: the establishment media is biased and unreliable. Newt Gingrich began this attack on leftist debate moderators, and other Republicans, including Romney, have spoken quite openly about the leftist bias in the establishment media. In April, Romney spoke of a "vast left-wing conspiracy" in the media, and he is a smart enough cookie to know that exposing the leftist media does not cost him votes and, in fact, energizes conservative voters. Moreover, it will put any leftist debate moderator on notice that Romney may call him out -- in front of America -- if he is not fair.
The leftist media is on the defensive in a losing battle for credibility. Pew Research showed that last September, and a Gallup Poll later in September showed that independent voters overwhelmingly believe that the media is "too liberal" (50%) rather than "too conservative" (13%). This means that the leftist media itself, if the bias is perceptible by ordinary Americans, could actually become a winning campaign issue. The leftist media, which is losing viewers and readers in huge chunks, may feel compelled to actually have a fair debate, if only for the sake of its survival as a relevant part of American life.
If that happens, Obama, who recently asked a bar in Parma, Ohio to turn off Fox News and who has never really had to contend in a neutral media environment, may get his socks knocked off. All Obama can do is recycle the same sort of dull and dreary Marxist glop which is his whole universe. Obama has already made himself almost as ubiquitous in American life as Stalin in 1930s Russia. His teleprompter-driven cant is much less than simply uninspiring: Obama, in that mode, is more like the throbbing pain of a toothache.
Romney has all the attributes of a serious grown-up. He has succeeded in the private sector and in family life. All the efforts to portray him as some haughty elitist will come crashing down in a debate which shows Romney as a sensible man who has stayed by his sick wife and done his homework on policies, and Obama, the true elitist, will be exposed for who he is.
The even greater danger for Obama is making a serious gaffe. He does this sort of thing all the time; as I noted when Obama spoke of Polish death camps, Obama and his staff are simply profoundly ignorant people. Leftists, of course, have tried to portray Romney as gaffe-prone, but that is clearly not true. His "gaffes" are the consequence of the media either lying about what he said or interpreting his accurate statements as insensitive. Telling the truth is not a gaffe.
This means that a thoroughly flustered Obama, without his trusting teleprompter or a closet advocate moderating the debate, may be seen by Americans as clueless and blundering. If that happens, a close race could become overnight a landslide.