Another debate took place. I'm not watching these because I find debates a mixture of boredom interspersed with moments of rage and frustration, so I'm better off just doing some dailies on WoW and reading about them later. Last night I was watching OnDemand Vegas instead. Pretty good show, actually. Dennis Quaid is great as a grizzled rancher and Michael Chiklis is great as a smart, tough gangster.However, there seems to be some confusion about how the debates work and what they are doing this time around. There have been times in the past when the debates were about informing the public, demonstrating differences in policy and demeanor, and helping the public learn more about the candidates. However, these days there's not much to learn about the candidates with the internet making information so readily available, and the debates are about something else entirely.
Voters don't get information so much as image and style from the debates. So what is said isn't nearly as important as how the candidates come across. A candidate can "win" the debate on technical terms or most zingers, or "lose" a debate by being ill prepared or making stupid statements, but that's not what matters.
I believe the dynamic of these debates, and for all in the foreseeable future is about something else.
For Mitt Romney, this is a chance for people to see what he's really like, or as real as a politician gets. The Obama team has spent a year depicting Romney as a rich monster, as a wealthy fat cat who has a car elevator, fires people for fun, and has never had a hard time in his life. They are trying to make this guy look like a particulary unpleasant version of Judge Smails from Caddyshack. He's a jerk, he's the boss you hated, he's all the rich people you are jealous about, they tell us.
The "Romney gave my wife cancer" ad wasn't so much about the events as giving a feeling, to build a reactoin when people saw or heard about Romney. See the name Romney, think woman dying of cancer. Hear Romney's voice, think about being fired. See Romney's face and think evil rich corporation. It was a step by step effort to make the man seem evil, cold, and the stereotypical rich, white, heartless Republican. Hiss, Boo.
When Mitt Romney is viewed by tens of millions of people in a debate with President Obama and comes across as a sort of affable Clark Kent type, it disarms that entire image. When Mitt Romney seems calm, professional, and capable, it means he isn't what the Obama team has been painting him as. What the Obama camp needed as for Romney to get angry, to snap at Obama, to sneer, to frown, to give them a sound bite they could repeat over and over and over reinforcing that evil white Republican image.
See, most people claiming to be undecided right now aren't so much unable to decide between Romney and Obama, I believe. I think they're undecided between voting for Romney and not voting at all. Its not that they love Romney, its that they just don't care for Obama any longer. The Obama campaign has been doing everything it can to make Romney seem unlikable and someone you don't really want to side with by voting. Romney, by being calm, professional, capable, and likeable, wins, no matter what the content of the debate is like.
Conversely, the Obama team has a different problem. Their base is very unhappy. Obama won with a huge turnout by Democrats, a larger than normal turnout by blacks, young people, and other minorities. The fabled youth vote wasn't enormous, but it was bigger than ever before. President Obama is facing lower-than-normal turnout in all these groups for him. He needs those votes to have a chance at winning. People just don't like him very much, are annoyed with what he's done and how he acts, and are just not very enthused.
And that enthusiasm gap is what the Obama team has to beat in the debates. That's why the first debate was such a disaster for the Democrats - it was demoralizing and shocking, they were horrified. And its why the Biden/Ryan debate was declared such a win by the left. It wasn't that by any objective terms Biden did so well, its that he served up the red meat in shovel fulls.
He did what people always say they wish politicians would: he sneered, he mocked Ryan, he was constantly on the offensive, treating Ryan like a joke. And to the left, it was brilliant!!! They loved it, they cheered and their excitement soared. Sure, to most of the rest of the public it looked like Biden was a demented and possibly insane old man while Ryan seemed even, calm, informed, and relaxed, but that just made him seem boring to the Democrat base.
To win, Obama and Biden have to rile up their troops, get them all excited and fired up. The DNC worked, for a few days. The Biden debate worked a little while. Its their only hope. I doubt President Obama really pulled that off this last debate, because I get the impression they don't understand this principle.
They're working on the old rules, where debates are won and lost on who seems like a winner, on who gets the zingers in, on who controls the discussion. And that's just not what its about now, or any more.
Romney would lose by yelling at Obama, at getting angry or frustrated. He'd lose by displaying any negative emotions, raising his voice, or looking angry. He can be passionate, but it has to be passionate in a positive way, or he fulfills the evil GOP stereotype.
Obama loses by not stirring up the base, by not being exciting and feeding up that red meat. And even if he pulls that off he hasn't convinced anyone new to vote for him, he's just prevented the bleeding. Obama is fighting a defensive battle, he's fighting to not lose any more. He's on prevent defense and I just don't see any tactic to turn that around.
So when you watch the debates or hear talk about them, remember: it doesn't matter who the press declares a winner. It doesn't matter who seemed like the better debater or had the best lines. Almost nothing from any debate is remembered anyway. You have Al Gore's sighs, "you're no JFK" from the loser in 1988, and "there you go again" and that's about it for debates after fifty years of television.
Its about Romney destroying the image Obama is pushing, and Obama cheering up his base. And that's all that ultimately matters in these debates, I think.