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What Debates Don't Deliver

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The 2012 Presidential campaign enters the home stretch with the first Presidential debate on October 3rd in Denver, Colorado. This will be followed by two more Presidential debates at Hofstra University and Lynn University, and a Vice-Presidential debate at Centre College. After months of overstating their confidence that their candidate would win the election, both campaigns are now doing their best to lower expectations about how their respective candidates will do in the debates, a common move by campaigns over time as debate season begins.

Mitt Romney's campaign made this lowering of expectations official with a memo distributed to campaign surrogates that included specific talking points about why President Obama is more likely to win the first Presidential debate. The reasons include:

-          President Obama is "widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history."

-          "This will be the eighth one-on-one presidential debate of his political career. For Mitt Romney, it will be his first."

On President Obama's side, a variety of campaign surrogates have also argued that Romney might have the upper hand, in part because of the number of Republican primary debates which will serve as practice for Romney, while for Obama, this is the first debate since the 2008 campaign.

A number of key points should be noted going into the debates:

-          After the debates, each side will, after having lowered expectations for their candidate, vehemently insist their candidate has decidedly won the debate.

-          Voters believe, by a 25-point margin, that President Obama is more likely to do "better" than Mitt Romney in the debates

-          Mitt Romney's chances of winning the election appear to be coming down to what transpires during the Presidential debates.

Let's look at the last point, which relates to the leads that President Obama has built in a number of key swing state polls since the Democratic National Convention and the release of the surreptitiously-recorded and now-infamous 47% video in which Mitt Romney indicates he doesn't really care about the 47% of the country that he says is definitely voting for Obama, believe themselves to be victims, and rely on the government.

In Ohio, a recent Washington Post poll has the President up by 8, with a 52% to 44% advantage. Not only is the crossing of the 50% support line for President Obama in terms of what it implies regarding the power that so-called undecided voters would have to swing the election, but because Republicans have never won the White House without winning Ohio in the modern era.

In Florida, whose importance in the 2000 election can't be forgotten, the President has also crossed the 50% mark, leading 51% to 47%, and in Virginia, President Obama has taken an eight point lead. In terms of the national popular vote, Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight.com has President Obama ahead 51.5% to 47.4%. Gallup's 7-day rolling average, more an indicator of momentum than a specific predictor of the popular vote, has the numbers at 50% for President Obama and 44% for Romney.

With every pre-debate day that Mitt Romney fails to close the gap with President Obama, the pressure mounts for the debates to cause a significant swing, one that while not impossible becomes less and less likely with each passing day. John F. Kennedy made up six points in the national Gallup poll after the first televised debate with Richard Nixon in 1960. In 1980, Ronald Reagan did make up nine points against Jimmy Carter. However, this is easier said than done, particularly with the recent trend of a "conservative" debate strategy, refraining from bold attacks and little if any real "debate" between the candidates for fear -- in part -- of being seen as overly aggressive by voters.

Unfortunately, I don't expect the debates to be anything than carefully practiced and rehearsed talking points from either side, riddled with pivoting away from definitive answers of any real kind. Instant on-screen fact checking during the live debates would be incredibly useful and welcome, but it's hard to imagine the campaigns ever agreeing to such a thing. Additionally, if viewers actually read a transcript of candidates' answers as opposed to watching and hearing them delivered, such that they could remove the tone and charisma with which they are delivered, it would become instantly apparent that rarely is a question truly answered. To that end, maybe it fits that debates rarely change the course of an election, since little is already said.

Let's not forget the other reason why the effect of the debates could be smaller than ever barring an unforeseen and unprecedented disaster for one of the two candidates: There is more "early voting" than ever taking place. 44.8% of voters live in states that have started early and absentee voting as of September 22nd. With this trend continuing, more voters than in any other election will likely have voted before the first words are spoken in Denver at the first debate.

David Pakman, host of the internationally syndicated political talk radio and television program, "The David Pakman Show," writes a monthly column. He can be reached at http://www.davidpakman.com.


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David Pakman is the host of The David Pakman Show, an internationally syndicated progressive talk radio and television program airing on over 110 stations across 4 countries, on DirecTV, DISH Network, and across the web on a hugely popular podcast (more...)
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