10.16.2012 12:51 PM

Also in today’s Sun: tonight’s historic debate

I have two columns in today’s Sun, which I actually forgot (it’s been kind of hectic). Here’s the other one:

Presidential debates are always pretty important. But the second between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Tuesday night is critically important. History gets made.

Before this year, only two presidential debates changed the outcome.

In 1960, Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy were tied in the Gallup. The result of the election was uncertain.

Until the debate, that is. Nixon was sweaty, grim-faced and unappealing. Kennedy was young, handsome and cool. After the debate, JFK took the lead and went on to win the presidency.

The next time a presidential debate mattered — really mattered — was in 2000. In that race, Al Gore had been significantly ahead of George W. Bush in a series of public opinion polls.

The presidential debates changed all that. In the first, Gore exaggerated his accomplishments and repeatedly showed impatience with the folksy, aw-shucks approach of Bush. In the spin room afterwards, GOP staff brilliantly characterized the Democrat’s performance: “He sighed and he lied.” Gore dropped. He dropped yet again when he appeared in a subsequent debate with makeup that was undeniably orange. And he again came across as pompous and phony. He lost.

On Tuesday night’s debate, everything rides. Obama’s appallingly bad performance in the first encounter — and Romney’s startlingly solid turn — erased the president’s comfortable lead. The keys to the White House are now anyone’s to win. I have prepared premiers, and a prime minister, for TV debates. In every case, I have given them the same three pieces of advice.

8 Comments

  1. Ronald O'Dowd says:

    Warren,

    I would put it this way: has the United States turned the economic corner? If the perception as to the answer is “Yes”, Obama is re-elected. If not, he’s already toast even if he has the best debate of his life.

  2. Kevin Powell says:

    Gore may have lost the debate, but he won the popular vote, and if some democracy watchers are to be believed, he also won Florida. I’m not sure that the Bush/Gore match up changed the outcome as much as you suggest. Bush lost the election but won the presidency.

  3. Alex says:

    Excellent column Warren. Your three points of advice for political debates are spot on. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that Obama has what it takes to follow advice like yours. Hopefully I will be proven wrong tonight

  4. Warren:

    I have to disagree with you on some of your theory about televised debates.

    1. You write: “contrary to what the media say, debates are not about so-called “defining moments”.

    I disagree. Sure, most debates don’t *have* defining moments: those are the ones where people agree that “there were no clear winners” or “nobody delivered a knock-out blow”. But some – the debates that change electoral outcomes – usually *are* about the defining moments. The most recent in Canadian history – and the most dramatic in terms of its ripple effects: A lacklustre Jack Layton performance nonetheless delivered a knock-out blow by attacking Ignatieff’s horrid attendance record. But for that remark, things – I’m certain – would have turned out much less well for the federal NDP, and would have turned out much better for the Liberals (though Ignatieff’s performance was bleh as well…as was Harpers…heck, they all sucked last time). And then there’s the “You had a choice sir” that we are forced to re-watch before every debate. Getting through a debate unscathed is fine – and it’s almost all we ever see provincially in Ontario, thanks to the fact that the parties invited to participate in leaders debates, provincially, are so very similar on the issues. And it’s the most common result. But there are debates with “defining moments” and, when they happen, such debates are very much ALL about the defining moments.

    2. Tonight’s a town-hall. It’s not really a debate. It’s ill-suited for Obama to return fire. The participants are no longer on a stage. They’re, in a sense, sitting in a living room with guests. They will be expected to be civil to one another. So Obama might not be able to do what he needs to do. I think if he attacks Romney on who he “cares” about – if he alleges that Romney doesn’t care about 47% – he’ll look like a boor. Same for Romney if he alleges Obama “lied” about hope and change. Worse: Whereas Obama’s done only one town-hall in the last year, Romney’s done 23. That’s almost one every two weeks. I expect Romney’s anxiety level to be unaffected by the format, whereas Obama might find the format anxiety-provoking. Advantage: Romney.

    3. Given the format, I’d say it’s not going to be about whose message dominates. I think it will be more about who was the life of the party. Again, this is a virtual living room. Folks will get a feeling that the participants are in their own living room. The winner will be the guy who they’d most like to stay in their living rooms a bit longer. The loser will be the one who ruins the host’s party, and who everyone wishes hadn’t been invited.

    I think, ultimately, they’ll both do well enough. Still, I’d like to see one of them flame-out magnificently: I’ve got no horse in this race, and wouldn’t even were I eligible to vote.

    Cheers,

    Paul

    3.

  5. Jason Hickman says:

    Being surprised by Obama’s performance in Debate I is understandable. Being surprised by Romney’s is less so. Regardless of one’s feelings for him, the man has been in numerous debates for years now. And he isn’t a stupid man, by any definition. This may have been a case where the Obama campaign’s post-convention, pre-debate offensive against Romney was *too* successful: as long as Romney didn’t completely trip over his tongue in that first debate, he would’ve exceeded expectations.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean he won’t tank tonight’s debate, or next week’s. It just means we shouldn’t be shocked if he has another good showing.

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