Who Won the Debate: Obama and Romney Tie in an Uninspired Foreign Policy Debate”

Published: PolicyMic (October 22, 2012)

Editor’s Note: This represents instant analysis of the presidential debate on Monday night. For the author’s thoughts in the hour immediately before the debate began, see here.

Here are my first impressions about the third debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Monday evening:

1) The Big Points:

– Both men came across as confident and well-informed … and, most important of all, neither committed any serious gaffes. Each campaign will of course seize on its opponent’s alleged factual errors, and their respective partisans will likewise set cyberspace aflame with their righteous indignation. In the end, however, it is unlikely that anything which was said tonight will be remembered, much less referenced, two weeks hence. Even the eventual “winner” will likely be deemed as such by a margin so narrow that it won’t result in any post-debate poll bounce.

– Just as notably, both men attempted to turn the conversation toward economic and social issues whenever possible – and wisely so. After all, polls show that the percentage of voters who care about foreign policy is in single digits. Barring an unanticipated foreign policy crisis in the next two weeks, it is unlikely that the issues broached in this debate will decide the outcome on November 6th.

2) Some Smaller Points:

– Things were more subdued than usual this evening. Naturally, there were a few sparks – from an early sparring over the Iraq War and Obama’s joke about “horses and bayonets” to the later dispute over what Romney’s statements about the auto industry – but in the end, each man seemed determined to remain on his best behavior. Perhaps their attitudes were influenced by the solemnity of the subject matter; perhaps the high-ranking advisers in both campaigns felt their candidate’s best bet was to “play it safe.” Regardless, this was the least entertaining of the four 2012 exchanges. When I predicted that this would be a “bellowing anticlimax,” I was only half-right. This was an anticlimax precisely because there was no bellowing. I’d write that it was “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but there would be one problem – the sound and fury never showed up.

– Shaffer’s “Obama bin Laden” flub may prove to be the highlight of the evening. This is somewhat regrettable, since his performance was for the most part as exemplary as those turned in by Martha Raddatz and Candy Crowley (Jim Lehrer remains the proverbial He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named). Nevertheless, we are long past the days when people have had to get used to the president’s name. The slip up may have been innocent, but it was still inexcusable (especially as it plays right into the latent bigotry still often targeted against this president).

– When I think of the great political debates from American history – between Daniel Webster and Robert Hayne in 1830, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 – I think of sharp ideological differences being articulately and intelligently presented so that the people could better weigh the competing visions. This manifestly did not happen tonight. As demonstrated by their virtually identical responses to Shaffer’s question regarding America’s role in the world, Obama and Romney made it clear that they both support a neo-Wilsonian vision of internationalist activism. Tonight’s discussion focused on whether Obama succeeded or failed in executing that philosophy, not on the legitimacy of the point-of-view itself. It serves as sad symbolism that the last major party presidential nominee to challenge that perspective was the one who passed away yesterday, George S. McGovern.

3) The Bottom Line:

– As I predicted, “the likelihood is that nothing which happen[ed] tonight will significantly change the shape of the race.” There really isn’t much more to say than that.

Presidential Debate Prediction: Why the Foreign Policy Debate Will Be a Tie”

Published: PolicyMic (October 22, 2012)

Here is my prediction for the third Obama-Romney debate at 9 p.m. EST at Lynn University in Florida: I think it’s going to be a draw, plain and simple.

This isn’t to say that I don’t think one of the two candidates will walk away with a narrow edge of “victory” over his opponent by the end of tonight. It’s just that it won’t particularly matter this time around. Context is everything in politics, and the fact remains that neither Obama nor Romney will benefit by the favorable circumstances which preceded the last two debates.

Before October 3, Romney was widely perceived as an underdog who needed nothing short of a Hail Mary play to salvage his presidential chances. This helped accentuate the contrast between his energized showing and Obama’s diffident tone, thus granting him a “victory” in the first contest and revitalizing his candidacy.

Before October 16, Obama was viewed as having established a poor debating track record for himself. As such, his ability to hold his own against Romney in round two was deemed a small but important “victory,” thus ending Romney’s momentum from the first debate and tightening the race into an essential tie, which is where it stands now.

Monday night’s debate, however, is likely to be a bellowing anticlimax. Obama and Romney both know what has worked best in the debates of 2012 — i.e., the bellicose and confrontational attitude displayed by Romney in the first debate and by Biden during the vice presidential outing — and they are likely to heap on more of the same. It won’t have as potent an impact on the race, though, because the stakes aren’t as high for either candidate. Now that Romney has revived his once-moribund electoral prospects and Obama has demonstrated that he can effectively debate, neither of them can really “prove” anything by assertive showings. Especially after the fireworks that flew during the second presidential debate, a repeat this evening will merely reinforce the existing trend of the race being extremely close, rather than notably push things in one direction or the other.

While the smart money would be placed on this outcome, there is still the usual caveat. Neither candidate can afford any major gaffes.

This applies equally to both Obama and Romney, of course, but Romney should probably be on his guard a little bit more than the president. After all, Obama at his worst didn’t create any memorable faux pas and fallacies, but merely came across as distracted and withdrawn (albeit humiliatingly so). Romney, on the other hand, has produced at least one unnecessarily distracting and silly meme in each of the last two debates, from quipping about firing Big Bird to insisting that he compiled “binders full of women” in order to hire female employees at Bain Capital. So far none of these slips have derailed his campaign, but they certainly have the potential to do so if he isn’t careful.

In the end, though, the likelihood is that nothing which happens tonight will significantly change the shape of the race. Partisans on both sides will inevitably crow about how their champion made mincemeat out of his challenger, but to the swing voters who actually decide elections, they’ll only sound like more of that obnoxiously shrill background noise to which ordinary Americans have grown accustomed.

Who Won the Debate Tonight: Obama Excels, Romney is Testy

Published: PolicyMic (October 16, 2012)

Editor’s Note: This represents instant analysis of the presidential debate on Wednesday night. For the author’s thoughts in the hour immediately before the debate began, see here.

Here are my first impressions about the second debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Tuesday evening:

1) The Big Points:

– Obama’s performance was much, much stronger this time around. He made excellent eye contact, assertively confronted Romney without coming across as rude or bellicose (charges made against Biden last week), and spoke in clear, confident sentences. Even better, he got in a few great applause lines, from his quip about the size of Romney’s pension to his mildly exultant request that Crowley repeat her confirmation about the factual inaccuracy of one of Romney’s charges (on the Libya attack). The worst case scenario tonight would have been him losing again, and no one outside of the most rabidly partisan right-wingers can argue that that happened.

– It seemed like Romney was trying to emulate Biden’s rambunctiousness (emphasis on the word “seemed,” since I doubt this was by design), but he made two critical mistakes: (1) He lacked the conciseness he had mastered during the first debate, instead allowing himself to ramble and lose sight of the central points he was trying to make. (2) While Americans are used to the candidates interrupting and being aggressive toward each other, they are unaccustomed to having them be similarly dismissive toward the debate moderators (politely asking for more time is one thing, but seeming to insist on it is quite another). Romney’s attitude toward Candy Crowley probably won’t hurt him to the same extent that Obama’s disinterested demeanor did on October 3rd (since it wasn’t as persistent throughout the course of the debate), but I suspect it began to subtly grate and, as such, will shave a few points off of those who decide if he “won.” He came across as testy, not feisty.

2) Some Smaller Points:

– Mitt Romney admitting that he wanted Detroit to go bankrupt could be the equivalent of Walter Mondale declaring that he would raise taxes. He provided Obama with a potential sound byte that the president will be foolish not to use in future commercials, especially in heavily industrial swing states like Ohio and Michigan.

– While the candidates’ language was much more accessible than it had been during the uber-wonky first debate, neither made points that are likely to transcend ideological bounds and have a lasting resonance with swing voters. It’s tempting for both sides to wildly applaud when their champion recites their favorite talking points, but those statements generally only sound like so much election year static to the undecideds.

– Crowley struck a middle ground between Raddatz’s firm grip over the course of the vice presidential debate and Lehrer’s doddering ineptitude during the first presidential outing. This should not have run overtime, but at least she was able to keep things focused.

3) The Bottom Line:

– As I predicted in my earlier editorial, this debate will be deemed either a “draw” or a lesser pro-Obama “victory” (i.e., a “lesser victory” here being one that was not as decisive as that which benefited Romney after the first debate). For all of Romney’s mistakes, they didn’t leave the kind of intensely negative visceral impression as did Gerald Ford’s “Eastern Europe” gaffe in 1976, George H. W. Bush’s watch-checking in 1992, and Obama’s deferential attitude two weeks ago. Likewise, for all of the president’s improvement, he failed to land a knockout punch against Romney akin to Ronald Reagan in 1980 or Lloyd Bentsen in 1988… with the exception of his reiteration of Crowley’s proof that Romney’s attempt to score a “gotcha” moment against Obama had failed. That one might leave a serious political bruise against Romney.

– The ultimate impact of this debate will depend on whether media coverage and post-debate polls deem it a statistical tie, a slight Obama victory, or a triumph for the president. The good news for Obama is that even the first possibility will probably help him by a point or two, given the contrast with his performance from the last debate. The last two alternatives will likely make it more of a three-to-four point bounce, which will give him a sound (but, for Romney, hardly insurmountable) lead. In short, Obama almost certainly gained more from tonight’s event than Romney; the only question is by how much.

Presidential Debate 2012 Prediction: Why Obama vs. Romney Debate Will Be a Tie

Published: PolicyMic (October 16, 2012)

Here is my prediction for the second Obama-Romney debate:

I think it’s going to be a draw, which will ultimately work slightly to President Barack Obama’s advantage.

Because the president was widely viewed as having lost the first debate, the proverbial bar has been set so low for him this time that any kind of reasonably energized showing will likely be applauded as a marked improvement. Since he has already debated at that level three times before (during the 2008 presidential debates), there is no reason to believe he can’t do it again tonight, especially now that he’s acutely aware of the necessity. At the same time, Romney’s post-debate surge was so massive that an unequivocal “victory” can only be plausibly claimed if Obama is perceived as having delivered a knock-out punch against his adversary. While that wouldn’t be unheard of – the best example being when Ronald Reagan famously asked Carter era Americans, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” – it is very rare (although I did offer one suggestion as to how Obama might do this in my last editorial). Far more common is what happened on October 3rd, in which one candidate is declared the decisive “winner” because of his opponent’s errors.

In short, this debate is Romney’s to lose. While he benefited the first time from being compared to Obama’s listless demeanor, he will be forced to sink or swim primarily on his own steam tonight … even as he is simultaneously expected to live up to the high-performing image he established for himself two weeks ago. This will be somewhat tricky, since it will require him to be bold and aggressive without committing any of the gaffes to which he has occasionally been prone. Indeed, had it not been for the high expectations Obama faced last time, coupled with the president’s own excessively deferential demeanor, Romney’s “Big Bird” quip and condescension toward Jim Lehrer might have been rather damaging. If he doesn’t correct those potential flaws this time around, he could wind up handing Obama a “victory.” At the same time, he can’t afford to overcompensate in the other direction and come off as too cautious either, since those were the very mistakes that cost Obama last week.

Objectively speaking, all of these factors create an environment in which it will be more difficult for Obama to “lose” (barring an extremely bad performance on his part) and equally difficult for Romney to “win” (barring an Obama gaffe, more Obama indifference, or a Reaganesque moment). This works to Obama’s immediate advantage, since obviously a repeat of the verdict from the first debate might make Romney’s momentum irreversible. Nevertheless, if Romney debates at a reasonably competent level (being confident, assertive, empathetic, and gaffe-free), it is unlikely that Obama will be able to win as decisively as Romney did in the first round. Even if Obama is declared the “winner,” anything short of a dramatic triumph will feel more like a draw than a real “victory” for him.

When all is said and done, the odds are that – barring major gaffes by Obama or Romney – viewers will either be split down the middle on who “won” tonight or will give Obama an edge not nearly on par with what Romney was able to accomplish. Politically speaking, this should help Obama halt the precipitous slide in the polls he has experienced in the aftermath of the first debate, but it remains to be seen whether it will help him make any kind of meaningful recovery. I suspect that it will tighten things up by eliminating Romney’s razor-thin lead, and maybe even give Obama a slight edge instead, but not much more.

What Time is the Debate: Obama Needs to Unmask Flip Flopper Romney to Win Debate

Published: PolicyMic (October 15, 2012)

As he prepares for the second presidential debate, President Barack Obama can learn a valuable political lesson from an unlikely source: George W. Bush.

When Bush defeated John Kerry in 2004, it was due in no small part to the fact that the Massachusetts Senator was widely viewed as a “flip-flopper.” Even after polls found that Bush was perceived as having lost all three of that year’s presidential debates, he still benefited from the general impression that he was more genuine than his opponent.

Bear in mind that Mitt Romney took a big hit in the polls after the “47%” videotape was leaked back in September. Although Obama’s lackluster performance in his first debate against Romney took attention away from that controversy, it hardly rendered it irrelevant. Imagine, thus, a situation in which the president’s concluding statement on Tuesday night begins with him pulling out an index card, telling viewers that he’s about to read a quote from Romney’s “47%” remarks, and then reciting the following: “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

It is essential that he uses this specific line because, more than any other segment of the “47%” comments, it captures the disdain Romney feels for so many of his fellow Americans. After that, Obama should point out that the “47%” includes senior citizens, veterans, people who earn less than $16,812 a year, and millions of middle-class families … none of whom were intended to hear that remark. As Romney’s campaign manager once observed (and Obama should repeat), Romney is an “Etch-a-Sketch” candidate, changing his views depending on the audience. That is why he initially responded to the controversy by downplaying those remarks as having been “inelegantly stated” (another line Obama should read directly from his index card). When it became clear that that wasn’t going to work with the general public, he then declared that they were “just completely wrong” (a phrase that, once again, should come directly from the card).

This is when the president needs to declare the obvious: The same man who believes those terrible things about 47% of his countrymen can’t also believe that those comments were simply “inelegantly stated” and that, at the same time, they were actually “just completely wrong.” Likewise, the same man who declared that he would repeal Obama’s entire health care reform bill can’t also be the one who now says he would keep parts of it and touts his own very similar program in Massachusetts. He can’t be the same man who has flip-flopped so egregiously on issues from abortion and stimulus spending to our foreign policies in the Middle East. Because Romney is a talented debater (a fact Obama must openly acknowledge), he is skilled at talking around these inconsistencies whenever they are brought to his attention. When all is said and done, however, the choice in this election is between a president who is happy to stand on his record — leading America through a terrible recession, passing comprehensive health care reform, regulating Wall Street, ending the war in Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden — and a man about whom voters will feel compelled to ask themselves one question: “Who is the real Mitt Romney?”

Each of the aforementioned elements would serve a vital purpose in making Obama’s case. The use of that specific quote from the “47%” comments will remind swing voters of what was most offensive about his remarks; the direct quotes from Romney’s subsequent equivocations, mentioning of his campaign manager’s “Etch-a-Sketch” comment, and allusion to other issues on which Romney has changed positions will substantiate the charge that he is a flip-flopper; the proud iteration of Obama’s own achievements will make it clear that the president is running on his own record and not just against Romney; and the use of the question “Who is the real Mitt Romney?” will provide a simple and memorable slogan to encapsulate the biggest reason why independents should pause before supporting the Republican candidate. Even the choice to do this at the end of the debate is significant, since the use of such an unorthodox closing statement will guarantee attention, in addition to it being the last thought Obama leaves with his audience that night.

For this to work, of course, the same Obama who was polled as having won all three of the 2008 presidential debates will need to be on the top of his game throughout the evening. If he keeps the identification of Romney’s flip-flopping at a steady pitch, however, a closing statement like the one suggested here would serve as a perfect crescendo.

Presidential Polls 2012: Obama Gaining Huge Momentum to Be Reelected in November

Published: PolicyMic (October 12, 2012)

If you’re supporting Barack Obama in this election, here are the hard political realities regarding how the final two presidential debates will impact his chances of victory:

The Bad News:

Because he is widely perceived as having lost the first debate, Barack Obama’s political standing has taken a major hit.

The lead he accumulated after Bill Clinton’s masterful DNC speech and the revelation of Mitt Romney’s polarizing “47 percent” comments has not only evaporated, but been replaced by a deficit. An average of the eight national polls taken entirely after that debate (i.e., which started surveying on and/or after October 4th) puts Romney ahead by slightly more than one point (47.1% to 46%), with the most optimistic projections merely showing a tied race (as opposed to Obama leading in any of them) and the bleaker ones having the president behind by as much as four points (Pew Poll: 49% to 45%). Similarly, the post-debate swing state polls have Obama ahead by at least three points in only two states (Pennsylvania: 49.3% to 44.3% and Michigan: 48.8% to 44.4%), ahead by only one to three points in four states (Ohio: 47.9% to 46.6%, Wisconsin: 50% to 47.7%, Iowa: 49% to 47%, and Nevada: 48.3% to 46.3%), behind by one to three points in a single state (New Hampshire: 49% to 47%), behind by at least three points in two states (North Carolina: 50.5% to 44.5% and Florida: 49.4% to 46.2%), and essentially tied in two states (Virginia, where he is ahead 48% to 47.8%, and Colorado, where he is behind 47.4% to 47.2%). If this status quo remains in place on Election Day, the undecideds lean toward Romney (which the post-debate zeitgeist leads one to intuit will be the case), and he thus loses every swing state except the two in which he is ahead by a relatively safe margin, he will fall behind in the Electoral College – where presidential elections are decided – by 301 to 237. Even the consolation of a popular vote victory will be unlikely, as the trend of Romney posting one-to-two point leads (and Obama not pulling ahead in any of the post-debate polls) suggests that the status quo would have the Republican win, albeit by a small margin.

The Good News:

Barring a major political or governmental catastrophe within the next three-and-a-half weeks, this most likely represents the nadir of Obama’s potential political standing. Because polls show Romney’s immediate post-debate momentum leveling out, it’s unlikely that Obama will do any worse than indicated above; likewise, because the president will benefit from the same low expectations that helped Romney in the first debate (as I explained in my two editorials before and after that event), the chances are quite strong that his next two debate performances will be deemed either victories or draws for him, both of which will help offset the negative effects of his perceived defeat on October 3rd (although obviously victories will do so to a greater extent). As such, assuming that Biden’s victory over Ryan has little to no effect on Obama’s overall standing (which I think is likely, as explained in my pre-and-post debate editorials here and here), the main question is whether those two debates will be able to cancel out the effects of the first one … and if so, by how much.

Unlike infamous debate gaffes by other presidents (most notably Gerald Ford claiming “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” in 1976), Obama’s problems involved not the substance of what he said (at the very least, fact-checkers have made it clear that Romney can be accused of just as many misstatements as right-wingers might attribute to Obama), but rather the style in which he said it, which was viewed as unduly distracted, deferential, and even withdrawn. Although popular mythology claims that this can destroy a presidential campaign (the most widely-cited example of this being the first presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, which was brilliantly analyzed by contemporary reporter Theodore H. White in a book whose sequel inspired my passion for American politics and history, The Making of the President – 1960), precedent shows that such negative impressions are usually temporary, especially if subsequent debates can take them out of the news cycle. If that pattern holds up today, it suggests that Obama will probably recover somewhat between now and November 6th.

Let’s assume the worst case scenario (again, barring a markedly negative jobs report, an inexplicable repeat by the president of his earlier debating errors, or any kind of unforeseeable political pothole for Obama or Romney), one in which the two debates are deemed draws. Even if Obama only averages a one-to-two point bounce between national and swing state polls as a result … a fraction of what Romney received after the first debate … he would still either tie up or take a slight lead in the overall popular vote, as well as secure Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada for an Electoral College margin of 299 to 239. In the best case scenario, of course he would be declared triumphant in both debates (or at least the first one, which matters most) and reclaim his earlier five-plus point lead in the national vote, as well as win all of the aforementioned swing states (save North Carolina, which is probably out of reach now) for a 332 to 206 victory in the Electoral College. My suspicion is that the reality will fall somewhere between these two extremes, with Obama doing well enough to mildly reverse Romney’s momentum without reaching his August and September highs. As the math makes clear, though, this would still give him enough of an advantage to win three-and-a-half weeks from now.

It can’t be stressed enough that all of these projections are entirely speculative. No one can know with certainty how the media will chose to spin the next two debates – they could salivate for an Obama “comeback,” feel like fanning the flames of a Romney “groundswell,” or seize on some unpredictable gaffe by one of the two candidates that they decide defines the whole thing – and likewise no one can know what news events could explode over the next twenty-five days. Two weeks is a lifetime in the world of politics, as indicated by the fact that everyone “knew” Romney’s candidacy was toast less than a fortnight ago. What’s more, because the national and swing state margins between Obama and Romney are often so close, the influence of variables from undecided voters and the margin of error to third-party candidates like Libertarian Gary Johnson will be more significant than would be the case in a more one-sided election. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Obama’s bottoming out only gives Romney a slight lead. This means that, given the right combination of political skill and good luck, a realistic possibility exists that the president will be re-elected on November 6th.

VP Debate Winner: Joe Biden Won, But the Big Loser is President Obama

Published: PolicyMic (October 11, 2012)

Editor’s Note: This represents instant analysis of the vice presidential debate on Wednesday night. For the author’s thoughts in the hour immediately before the debate began, see here.

Here are my first impressions about the debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan on Thursday evening:

1) The Big Points

– Biden’s message in this debate can be summed up in two phrases: “That’s a bunch of malarkey” and “Facts matter.” In stark contrast to Obama, Biden was proactive and passionate, most notably in his willingness to be outspokenly indignant when calling out Ryan on the alleged errors in his opponent’s statements. The angry smile plastered across the vice president’s face during many of Ryan’s statements, often accompanied by an equally irate laugh, provided punchy visual reinforcement for the strong verbal jabs sprinkled throughout Biden’s answers. In the end, even voters who disagree with the Democratic ticket were at least left with an indelible visceral impression of what Biden had to say about the Romney-Ryan arguments. That’s because the vice president didn’t just say it, but phrased it in especially catchy language that is likely to roll off the tongues of liberals for the next 26 days: “That’s a bunch of malarkey.” “Facts matter.”

– Ryan, as I predicted in my earlier article, didn’t make much of an impression. He had one clever quip – i.e., how Biden should sympathize with Romney’s “47%” gaffe given that people sometimes say things which come out the wrong way – but I doubt it will be viewed as particularly memorable, since it doesn’t diffuse the fundamental doubts raised about Romney’s philosophy that were prompted by the infamous videotape in question (although it did get in a good laugh about Biden’s own penchant for faux pas). Overall, it is unlikely that Ryan’s performance either helped or harmed Romney’s candidacy in any meaningful way.

2) Some Smaller Points

– Martha Raddatz was the moderator that Jim Lehrer should have been last week. She asked tough questions, gave both candidates a fair opportunity to reply, and made it clear that she was in control of the discussion. If there is one point on which all sides should agree, it is that Raddatz needs to moderate again in the future.

– As with the first presidential debate, the arguments made by both Biden and Ryan tonight were heavy on wonky policy details that will please their respective partisan bases without particularly impressing independent voters. Consequently, as before, impressions regarding who “won” the debate will be based on stylistic performances rather than substance.

– This was one of the most thoroughly entertaining debates, of any kind, that I have seen in a long time. Thanks to the charisma of the two candidates and the white hot sparks that flew between them, I doubt even the politically uninitiated could have been genuinely bored while watching it.

3) The Bottom Line

Biden won, since he was the only one whose performance will leave an imprint on the popular consciousness.

More important, though, is that Obama lost. Regardless of whether one agrees with his agenda, it is undeniable that he has been derelict in his responsibility to effectively articulate his own case. His post-Convention bounce in the polls was due not to his own forgettable speech, but to Bill Clinton’s stirring stemwinder; now, if he winds up recovering in the polls over the next week, it will be due not to his own lackluster debate performance, but Biden’s feistiness. I suspect that Biden has managed to mitigate a little bit of the damage done by the first Obama-Romney debate, but overall the burden will lie with the president to accomplish the rest of the job (if it is to be accomplished at all). If anything, Biden’s pugnacity only underscored the deferential tone Obama used eight days ago.

The byword of the upcoming news cycle: Malarkey.

VP Debate 2012 Predictions: Joe Biden Will Be Declared Winner of the Debate

Published: PolicyMic (October 11, 2012)

Some opening thoughts on the upcoming vice presidential debate:

– Just as Mitt Romney benefited from low expectations in the first presidential debate, so too will Joe Biden likely walk away as the declared “victor” in this contest by simple virtue of being the perceived underdog. His main obstacle will be his chronic case of foot-in-mouth disease – i.e., he will need to avoid making any of the gaffes for which he has become particularly notorious during his vice presidency. Should he sidestep that potential pitfall, however, he is likely to impress by simple virtue of the other qualities which he possesses in spades, including his intelligence, sharp wit, and general persuasiveness as a debater (the man did spend more than half of his life as a Senator, after all).

– I anticipate that Paul Ryan will break even. Like Biden, he has a great deal of experience as a debater, and while his intellectual bona fides are a tad overrated (he is bright, but hardly an innovative conservative thinker in the line of a Ron Paul or Jack Kemp), he is smart enough that he should avoid embarrassing himself as GOP vice presidential candidates have been wont to do (think Dan Quayle or Sarah Palin). Because expectations for him aren’t particularly high or low, it’s unlikely that a great deal of attention will be paid to his performance one way or the other. The only significant challenge he’ll have is that of not being painted as an extremist. One of Romney’s triumphs in the first debate was the manner in which he sloughed off the aura of radicalism that Obama’s campaign had effectively associated with him. Because Ryan has some genuinely controversial views (particularly on economic policy), he’ll need to avoid making statements that could reinforce that image so soon after Romney managed to wriggle away from it.

– As a rule of thumb, vice presidential debates rarely have a major impact on the outcome of a presidential election. Even the most noteworthy case in which one candidate was routed – that of Dan Quayle being humiliated by Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 (the famous “You’re no Jack Kennedy” quip was but one example) – didn’t significantly help the front of the ticket that year (Michael Dukakis was decisively defeated by George H. W. Bush that year). This is because, no matter how the prospective vice presidents perform, debates are scheduled in such a way that they have always been followed by additional presidential exhibitions. At best, this winds up diminishing the potency of whatever impressions are left by the vice presidential contest; at worst, they’re eliminated completely.

That last point notwithstanding … while the chances are indeed slim that anyone will be thinking about the Biden-Ryan event on November 6th, there is a strong possibility that this will effect the momentum of the race for the next week. If Ryan is perceived as the clear winner, it will add fuel to the fire of Romney’s growing strength, while if Biden is viewed as having won, it could stop or even begin to reverse that trend. Of course, if either candidate makes a spectacle of himself – or allows his opponent to demolish him, Bentsen-style – this could indeed shape the course of the election. After all, one of the reasons Bentsen was unable to really help the Democratic ticket in 1988 was because Dukakis committed major campaign errors in the following month. If Ryan “wins” and Obama is unable to recover his campaign, or if Biden “wins” and then Obama runs a smooth ship, tonight’s debate could be an exception to the rule.