US presidential debates - time to take the Mitts off?

Thu 20 Sep

The clock in running down on the US presidential election, and Mitt Romney is hoping that October's high-profile televised debates will reinvigorate his faltering campaign. The three 90-minute debates on October 3rd, 11th and 16th are the last marquee events of the election, and possibly the final major opportunities for the challenger to change the direction of a race that recent polls suggest is close, but has the president holding a steady, if small, lead.

Romney needs a win in the debates, because he bungled his previous opportunities to catch the electorate's eye as a potential commander-in-chief.

The announcement of the small government ideologue Paul Ryan as his vice presidential nominee seemed to be more designed to stroke the Obamaphobic hard-right base of the Republican party than appeal to the nation at large, and was made on a Saturday morning on the last weekend of the Olympics, when no-one was paying attention. That was followed by a lacklustre Republican convention in which Romney's big speech was upstaged by a bewildered Clint Eastwood debating an imaginary Barack Obama (and losing). The expected post-convention "bounce" in the polls failed to happen, and nerves were already fraying in the Romney campaign even before the recording of the candidate privately dismissing 47% of Americans as feckless welfare-dependant freeloaders hit the headlines. Memo to future presidential candidates: it's generally best not to be overheard expressing contempt for half the electorate whose trust you are trying to gain.

The sequence of gaffes and pratfalls led one senior Republican commentator to describe Romney's campaign as the most inept in 60 years. Throughout all of this, "no-drama Obama" has been content to appear thoughtful and presidential in a campaign which, happily for him, has been focusing on Romney's mishaps more than his own less-than-impressive economic record.

The televised debates may be Romney's last chance to take aim at Obama and not shoot himself in the foot. History suggests that televised debates in themselves rarely decide the outcome of an election, but they can provide telling moments which solidify how voters see candidates, which can make a difference in a close race.

Many Americans remember the moment in the 1992 debates when the first president Bush was caught on camera checking the time on his watch, as if wanting it all to be over - which, for him, it was, a few weeks later. In the meantime, his challenger, Bill Clinton, had strode from the lectern, hand in pocket, and looked audience members in the eye and told them that he felt their pain. Likewise, the 1960 debate in which an ill and unshaven Richard Nixon melted in the spotlight beside the youthful and immaculately groomed John F Kennedy is legendary.

The ghost of Kennedy hovered over the 1988 vice presidential debate when Dan Quayle was foolish enough to place the crown of Camelot on his own undeserving head by comparing himself to the dead president - only to be instantly decapitated by his opponent Lloyd Bentsen with the immortal retort: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy". This latter is proof that great debating performances don't win elections, however, because Bentsen and his partner on the ticket, Michael Dukakis, went down in flames that November. Perhaps the most famous debating moment from a close race was in 1980, when president Jimmy Carter gave a dry and technocratic answer to a question on policy, only to have his challenger, Ronald Reagan, hit the ball out of the stadium with his response: a resigned shake of the head and a "there you go again".

Both Reagan and Clinton understood a central principle of televised debates: the ability to connect emotionally and project empathy trumps a mastery of policy detail. The issue with this year's debates is that both candidates have been criticised for their inability to convince ordinary voters that they are talking to and for them - Obama often sounds like the academic he once was, and Romney like the corporate CEO he once was. This could lead to pretty dull debates - which is what Obama will be hoping for. He simply needs to come through them without slipping up. Romney, however, needs a game changer, which means he may come out swinging - and his team will be hoping he connects with Obama's chin, and not his own.


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