As the candidates prepare for the first presidential debate on Wednesday night, one has a sense that the country has undergone debate preparations now for well over a week. Both sides have praised each other’s debating skills; sought to prepare their followers for both a shellacking and a home run; and may well have exhausted the patience of the viewing audience, even before the debate has occurred.
In fact, one has a sense that the country is exhausted and even bored with the entire campaign. They would like this campaign to be over. We still have four debates, endless campaign ads, non-ending polls, and, yet, probably 96% of those likely to vote have already made up their minds. As for tomorrow night’s debate, the excitement may well have been worn off by the anticipation. The public and the pundits will be looking tomorrow night for the gotcha mistakes while the media and the scholars will try to discern policy differences.
Based on recent poll trends, Romney needs to win this debate. He needs to energize the campaign and swing the public back to his positives. His likeability ratings need to improve while his message needs to be simpler. Romney will be challenged on his shifts since his days as Governor and much will depend on whether the public will accept how he address this.
Obama will be riding a crest of favorable ratings which he must justify with a strong performance. Despite much substantive dissatisfaction which Obama has overcome, he still is vulnerable if he shows weakness and Romney is more in command of the discussion.
Historically, challengers tend to do well in the first debate, although that is hardly a guarantee of winning. Romney needs to stop the bleeding and turn around the direction. Obama needs to try not to lose or to at least not make major mistakes. Romney needs to be assertive and forceful without being too clever. He needs to sustain his base and his troops, but he also needs to reach the undecided in the swing states. Obama will not be defensive about the key economic issues, but this is where he is most vulnerable. At the same time Romney can score best on the economy if he stays away from economic theory and is strictly down-to-earth; speaking about paychecks and jobs and not marginal tax rates and infrastructure investment.
The excitement in the media does not appear to be reflective of the public. This election has gone on too long and we can discuss what is wrong with the American electoral system on another occasion. Although more and more people are voting early and getting it over with, Election Day is still five weeks away.