Before Barack Obama and Mitt Romney debated in Denver, some very smart political scientists tried to dampen the overheated expectations game with a dose of historical context. Debates, they argued, usually don’t matter that much. They loom large in our recollection of past races because they offer a snapshot of a candidate’s strength or fecklessness, but they are rarely decisive. Many pundits trumpeted this perspective. Then Romney beat Obama in Denver and took off in the polls, turning a race that seemed like Obama’s to lose into a nail biter with three weeks to go. What happened?
Two things: Romney exceeded expectations, and the media — abetted by panicky liberals — fashioned a narrative that Obama’s performance was worse than it actually was. After a brief horse-race boost, Romney has settled back into a virtual tie with the President, according to the polling averages of RealClearPolitics. That’s the same position the two candidates were in on Labor Day, before Obama received a postconvention bump. The debate didn’t dramatically alter the race; it restored its equilibrium.
This is not to say Romney didn’t win. He did. His answers were crisper, his rejoinders smoother, his demeanor more forceful. Obama was halting and flat. But the President’s performance was hardly the cataclysmic implosion that supporters have suggested. Go back and read the transcript. The great Denver rout has become a political fish story, a defeat that grows larger in scale with each breathless retelling.
There’s a simple reason for this, and it’s not, as some reporters have held, because the media were desperate to latch on to a dramatic comeback story. It’s mostly because unpacking a 17,000-word colloquy on the tightest of deadlines is hard. The media have a tendency to peer ahead instead of look back. So instead of returning to dissect some of the subtle and substantive exchanges, many reporters moved on — almost instantly — to the implications of Romney’s strong showing. Apart from fact-checking the falsehoods that were slung onstage, most of the debate analysis consisted of theater criticism. And theater criticism matters, because it shapes voters’ impressions of the candidates.
Which is why as the second debate approaches, advisers to both Romney and Obama are coaching their candidates on style, not substance. As Politico reports, Romney’s prep sessions “have been focused almost entirely on the stagecraft and body language of engaging with the questioners. Romney has been warned not to physically back away from a questioner, but to lean in as if having a one-on-one conversation that just happens to have 50 million or so eavesdroppers.” Obama’s surrogates have primed the press to expect a more “energetic” and forceful candidate, as the New York Times reports. “This isn’t a guy who needs to be grilled on facts,” an Obama aide told the Times. “What he needs to work on is stylistic.”
In other words, the nominees are looking to hit the alpha-male sweet spot, which lies somewhere between assertive and antagonistic. This is particularly true of Obama, whose body language in Denver was uncharacteristically timid. The Los Angeles Times, Politics Daily and Politico (twice) all described his performance as “flaccid.”
For Obama, the challenge is complicated by Tuesday’s night’s town-hall format, which has the candidates standing together onstage, surrounded by a coterie of undecided voters. With your rival at your side, channeling voters’ questions into personal attacks on your opponent could come off as prickly, but aides have foreshadowed the President throwing the punches he pulled last time: Bain Capital, the 47%, Osama bin Laden and so on. As Mike Grunwald argues, it is incumbent on the incumbent to make a strong enough case for the last four years that the public sees fit to give him four more.
However the debate goes, look for Democrats to claim victory. This may seem obvious; the spin room exists for supporters to say their guy won. But Democrats erred after the first debate, as Kevin Drum noted, by formally ceding the night to Romney. Because this is rare, it fed the emerging narrative that Romney’s win was more decisive than it actually was. In contrast, after Joe Biden dominated the vice-presidential debate with Paul Ryan, Fox & Friends trotted out a psychiatrist to suggest that Biden was either drunk or suffering from dementia.
Democratic surrogates don’t need to stoop to such claims. But they would do well to paint the night as a triumph, a task that will be a lot easier if Obama comes out fighting.