5 Themes to Watch for During the Presidential Debates

Barack Obama Mitt Romney National Conventions - H 2012
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Barack Obama Mitt Romney National Conventions - H 2012

Five things smart viewers should watch for when Obama and Romney square off tonight.

A presidential debate is not American Idol. There’s no definitive verdict from a panel of judges, and it’s been that way since the first televised confrontation, the storied 1960 debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Most of the substantial number of Americans who listened to that event on radio thought Nixon won; the 70 million who watched it on TV overwhelmingly felt Kennedy was the victor.

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Republicans, in fact, were so traumatized by the ambiguity of the outcome that they didn’t agree to another presidential debate for 16 years.

The Internet was awash Wednesday in policy-heavy guides to the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but here are five things to look for that might actually influence the election:

1. First Impressions Are Almost Everything: No matter how many debates are scheduled—there are three presidential and one vice presidential this time around—it’s the first one that matters most. More important, it’s the first half hour of the first debate that really counts. That’s because, historically, viewership falls off after the first debate and, during that contest, after the initial 30 minutes. That’s doubly true this time around. Most commentators believe Romney has to win big to change the dynamic of the race, while Obama’s task is to avoid sounding like the teacher who put you to sleep in your high school civics class. A number of polls show that, by and large, voters like Obama personally and are more tepid toward Romney. He’s got 30 minutes to convince the electorate he’s their kind of guy.

2. Policy Differences Only Count When Simplified: Given the brevity of the time allowed for answers, the kind of complex questions that underlie the country’s crucial economic problems can’t be addressed in depth. More important, doing so would put the viewers who stick past the first 30 minutes to sleep. So, Obama—without appearing too harsh—needs to convince voters that Romney is an insensitive plutocrat who avoids paying taxes on the profits he makes from outsourcing American jobs. Romney needs to convince viewers that Obama is driving the country into whatever the national equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy is. . .and, at the same time, persuade women voters—more than 50 percent of the electorate—that he cares about women's issues.

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3. Who Can Make the Most of What’s Working for Them: Polls show that Obama’s campaign has made an issue of Romney’s secretly taped comments suggesting that 47 percent of the country never would vote for him because it’s dependent on government support. The president needs to find ways to keep that theme alive without seeming harshly confrontational---more in sorrow than anger probably works best. Right now, those same polls show that the Romney is getting real traction with his attacks on Obama’s Middle East policies, particularly the security situation in Libya. He needs to find a way to work at least some suggestion of that critique into a debate that’s supposed to be about domestic policy. (Foreign affairs are the focus of their third confrontation.)

4. Medicare and Medicaid vs Obamacare: Ever since Romney opted to embrace Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial proposal to convert Medicare into a voucher program, the Republicans have been struggling to win back seniors—who vote in large numbers. Obama needs to find a way to hang Ryan’s plan around Romney’s neck. Romney, by contrast, needs to rekindle public anxieties about the president’s signature healthcare reform without having to explain that he did much the same thing while governor of Massachusetts.

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5. Watch for the Unexpected: Popular perceptions of who won or lost a debate frequently turn on something wholly unexpected, whether in demeanor or in a quip or remark. Ronald Reagan managed to appear both avuncular and presidential by repeatedly admonishing Jimmy Carter, “there you go again.” Al Gore unexpectedly lost to George W. Bush because his theatrical sighs and odd body language made him appear condescending and unlikable. Michael Dukakis, a lifelong opponent of capital punishment, solidified people’s suspicions that he was a wimp, when he fumbled a question about whether he’d want to see someone convicted of raping and murdering his wife executed. Might something similar happen between Obama and Romney? The only way to tell is to watch the whole debate.

It airs at 6 p.m PST on all the major networks and cable news channels. It will also be streaming live on the Internet.