A three-part reality series is about to overtake the nation’s airwaves. President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney will face off in their first presidential debate on Wednesday night and expectations are running high.
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“This is the last scheduled opportunity to make a dent in public opinion. We know there will be tens of millions of people watching the debates…and they will be influential. They are the last scheduled chance to change the trajectory of the campaign,” says David Birdsell, dean at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs.
For months the candidates have been zinging accusations and one-liners at each other through stump speeches, advertisements and interviews, but Wednesday’s debate is the first time the two men will be on the same stage, at the same time, and talk to each other. How they answer the questions, interact with each other, defend their policies and handle the stress could determine who enters the White House in January.
The three 90-minute debates give candidates the opportunity to communicate directly with voters to explain their platform and policies, as well as showcase their personalities and leadership qualities.
Professor Allan Louden from Wake Forest University notes that debates can cement the narratives in a campaign and can reconfirm any pre-conceived notions.
“If there is a comment like 'Romney is an elitist' or 'Obama is aloof or unengaged' -- that becomes a market for the debate. It will have a lot of impact if people already have that suspicion.”
He said viewers look for and take away different things from the debates. “After a debate, if you ask people of their impressions, about a third of comments will be about character -- whether they liked the candidate -- a third will be content, and a third will be interactional -- how they treated and interacted with each other.”
While there’s no doubt the debates provide a stage for candidates to attack each other, both candidates need to maintain poise and make sure their policy message doesn’t get lost in the mudslinging.
“They have to be aggressive and show leadership and take it to the other person, but in a way that is not demeaning,” warns Louden. “You can be highly critical but respectful. Don’t sigh, don’t roll your eyes, don’t curse and don’t show disdain.”
Experts agree the first debate carries the most impact since it tends to be the most watched and the topic —domestic policy — includes the economy, a top priority for voters this election year.
“We are coming in with 96% of the electoral already locked down, and that remaining percent can make or break the election,” says Birdsell.
What Obama Needs to Do
The president is entering the debate series with polls showing a lead over Romney, and experts say all he needs to do is maintain the status quo to keep his momentum.
“His job here is to not cede ground and avoid any huge errors. He can win this by not losing, he will play a more cautions game, defend what he has done, acknowledge difficulties and detail plans,” says Seth Masket, associate professor and chair of political science at the University of Denver.
At the same time, history shows incumbent presidents don’t always perform well in the first debate, according to Mitchell McKinney, communications professor at the University of Missouri who studies presidential debates. “The president has been in a presidential bubble and his advisors and preppers aren’t doing as much to challenge him and work him. Incumbents aren’t used to being challenged and attacked, he is used to having the bully pulpit.”
McKinney pointed to the first debate in 1984 between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale where incumbent Reagan didn’t perform very well and left viewers wondering about his age and capability.
“He stammered and was rambling with his answers and that left an opening for his age to be questioned, but Reagan took it head on during the second debate when he quipped about Mondale ‘I am not going to exploit…my opponent’s youth and inexperience’ and that turned things around."
Experts say the president also needs to be mindful of his off-the-cuff responses. In 2008 when facing off with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, his remark of "You're likable enough, Hillary” rubbed some people the wrong way.
“Obama is good in a platform speech situation,” says Birdsell. “Some people perform well when telling long stories, but they can’t do it quickly and in this situation all they get is 90 seconds. Cases when he looks arrogant and condescending have come in debate formats, so he needs to be careful of that.”
Obama’s main task is to convince viewers why he needs to be re-elected. “This is a job interview,” says McKinney. “Romney will come after him on his record and performance and Obama needs to confidently and forcefully defend his record. And he may want to turn around and question Romney’s record as governor or at Bain Capital."
What Romney Needs to Do
The stakes are high for Romney coming into the debate as experts say this is his opportunity to change the trajectory of the campaign and re-shift the focus back on the economy.
“This is where Romney can change the dynamics of the race,” says Masket. “I expect him to attack Obama on economic issues -- to make the argument that the economy is still weak and for him to ask viewers if the economy would be better with him or his opponent. He also needs to work to rehabilitate his own image after the fallout of the '47%' comment caught on camera.”
The Romney campaign has been criticized for not providing enough detail on its policy ideas and campaign goals and he needs to seize this huge audience to specify his plans.
“He has to articulate and be specific about his plans without alienating the base and not getting tied up with other stuff in 90 seconds,” says Birdsell. “He has to convince people that he is sensitive to their concerns, can be trusted to act on what he said he will do and will be accountable.”
Romney has to work to shape his answers to fit the time allotment while providing enough specifics and detail to satisfy the moderator and voters. During the presidential debates for the GOP primary, there were eight candidates on the stage making thinly-detailed and bumper-sticker answers acceptable, but now there will be only two people on stage, and those answers won’t work, says McKinney.
Birdsell also advises Romney to highlight some of the president’s remarks like “You can't change Washington from the inside,” or “You didn’t build that” and take the opportunity to build a rapport with voters.
“If Romney wants to reset this campaign he has to take more chances than Obama will. He needs to change the storyline. If it stays the same, he loses. He needs to redirect the analysis and point it to what he cares about, show his level of credibility and detail his promise.”