In just a few short weeks, the long-awaited series of presidential debates will begin at the University of Denver, where Jim Lehrer will pepper President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney with questions on domestic policy. Judging from the commentary of the Sunday Morning Political Chat-Show punditocracy, these debates will be a make-or-break moment -- indeed, perhaps the makiest-or-breakiest moment -- for the Romney campaign, the conventions period having been judged to have insufficiently "bounced" his standing in the polls.
For the media, the debates are, indeed, a shiny object that, critically, they have budgeted a lot of money to cover. Political scientists, however, disagree on whether presidential debates can have a significant impact on the race. Here's John Sides, making that point:
That presidential debates can be "game changers" is a belief almost universally held by political pundits and strategists. Political scientists, however, aren't so sure. Indeed, scholars who have looked most carefully at the data have found that, when it comes to shifting enough votes to decide the outcome of the election, presidential debates have rarely, if ever, mattered.
Sides cites numerous reasons why debates don't tend to swing voter preferences, but perhaps the most relevant point is that by the time the lights go up on the debate podium, both contenders are already well-prepared for what might happen:
The impact of debates is also limited because the candidates are fairly evenly matched. Each candidate will have read a thick stack of briefing papers and rehearsed extensively. They will stick to their message and won’t be easily rattled. One candidate's argument will be immediately countered by the other's. Perhaps one candidate may appear more comfortable than the other. Perhaps one may momentarily slip up while the other does not. But the differences in their respective performances will be small.
That's why, as Sides goes on to point out, "[c]andidates sometimes try to lower expectations of their own debate performance by claiming that they are just humble, plainspoken folks while their opponents are the second coming of Cicero." That's the part of the pre-debate media cycle we're in right now, and it seems that the Romney camp is making a terrible mistake by telling people they are pretty sure that their candidate is going to do a good job. As Zeke Miller reports, "Romney has devoted what allies and critics alike say is astonishingly little attention to the venerable expectations game that will frame that judgment," choosing instead to "exude confidence about the upcoming contests."
Aye, verily, Romney is being a foolish fool, here! Instead of exuding confidence, he should definitely be saying things like, "We're pretty sure President Obama is going to expose Romney as a hopeless lightweight and crush him utterly, into dust, with his powerful mastery of forensics." This is how Sarah Palin "won" her debate with Joe Biden four years ago, despite the fact that poll respondents generally thought Biden had done the better job. Sure, Biden answered questions with clarity, but did you notice how Palin totally managed to avoid setting Gwen Ifill on fire? In that way, Palin exceeded "expectations."
Like all breathless bulls**t in American politics, the way the "expectations game" is played can best be explained with a half-assed "Star Trek" metaphor, based upon my dim memories of watching the original series as a child. See, whenever the U.S.S. Enterprise found itself in a sticky wicket and needed Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott to rejigger the dilithium thingy to avoid a fatal warp core whatsit, Scottie would always complain that the needed fix would take several days to engineer. "But we don't have time!" Capt. Kirk would say, and Scottie would shrug wryly and eyeroll a "can you believe this guy?" and then go grab a drink or read some tweets or whatever because he secretly knew that it would only take about 10 minutes to do the thing. Then, when he did the thing, everyone would talk about how amazing he was, and he'd get a three-day pass to get facedown in a bottle of Federation space Laphroaig.
So the fact that the Romney camp is actually "exuding confidence" is a big strategic gambit that could blow up in his face if he simply comes out and puts on a performance that's worthy of having exuded confidence over in the first place. In the "expectations game," if you express confidence in your debate prep, you will be required to leave your opponent quietly quivering with dampened pants behind the lectern (not the podium ... that's something everyone should brush up on before the debates), unable to stand or speak under the weight of unbearable shame.
This is, of course, stupid. There shouldn't be anything wrong with Romney saying that he'll be well-prepared to debate -- he quite literally will be. It's just that the media need to have something to talk about between now and the debates, and so "expectations" it is. (Barring some sort of clear on-stage disaster, most of what political journalists will say about each candidate's performance will largely conform to the narrative they established the morning before the debate takes place, anyway.)
How is Team Obama Re-Elect playing the expectations game? Miller reports that they are taking "a far more orthodox approach," by "privately and publically projecting a low-grade panic" that Obama will be a total cock-up. "One [campaign source] told BuzzFeed last week," Miller reports, "that the president has the tendency to get 'testy' when challenged, and that given his dislike for Romney, 'who knows what can happen.'"
Yes, who knows, maybe Obama will fly into a blind rage and choke Romney right there on the podium and thus only manage to meet, not exceed, expectations. In the event that this happens, we will already be so steeped in media counterintuition that the insta-analysis will probably credit Obama for "rallying the Democratic base."
At any rate, all of the silliness over "managing expectations" is just one more reason I recommend replacing the presidential debates with a series of competitive cat videos.
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At the Daytona 500 race, Mitt Romney's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/26/mitt-romney-nascar-team-owners_n_1303029.html" target="_hplink">attempt to connect with voters went awry</a> when he admitted that he didn't follow racing as closely as "some of the most ardent fans." "But I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners," he added. At the same event, he told a group of fans wearing plastic ponchos, "I like those fancy raincoats you bought. Really sprung for the big bucks." Romney later <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/01/mitt-romney-garbage-bag-rain-gear_n_1313499.html" target="_hplink">defended the comment</a>, saying, "Look, I have worn a garbage bag for rain gear myself."
Loving The Height Of Michigan's Trees
Romney campaigned through Michigan ahead of the state's GOP primary in March, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/24/mitt-romney-michigan-trees_n_1299937.html" target="_hplink">frequently making mention</a> of its foliage. <blockquote>Mitt Romney's last few Michigan stump speeches have included an unusual plank -- his appreciation for the apparently perfect height of the state's trees. "I love this state," he told an audience Tuesday. "The trees are the right height." On Friday afternoon, Romney reprised the comment, saying, "This feels good, being back in Michigan. You know, the trees are the right height."</blockquote> Of course, those comments were just the latest examples of Romney professing his love for the Wolverine State's trees. For more, read the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/24/mitt-romney-michigan-trees_n_1299937.html" target="_hplink">rest of the story</a>.
Romney Likes Grits, Y'all
At a March stump speech in Mississippi, Romney <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/09/mitt-romney-i-like-grits-learning-to-say-yall_n_1334935.html?ref=elections-2012" target="_hplink">explained to primary voters</a> that he had been making attempts to solidify his Southern credentials. <blockquote>Campaigning in Mississippi on Wednesday, Mitt Romney attempted to win over local voters by invoking a beloved regional delicacy. The former Massachusetts governor said during a speech in Pascagoula, Miss., that he is turning into an "unofficial Southerner." He also joked, "I'm learning to say 'y'all' and I like grits. Strange things are happening to me."</blockquote>
Romney tried to connect with a Michigan crowd by providing 35 dozen paczkis, Polish jelly doughnuts traditionally eaten on Fat Tuesday, with flavors including strawberry, rose-hip and prune. But as <em>The Washington Post</em> reports, <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/two-michigan-rallies-reveal-romney-santorum-flaws/2012/02/21/gIQA5Sz9ZR_print.html" target="_hplink">the gesture went awry</a>: <blockquote>The Comeback Kid walked out smiling, wearing a button-down shirt and jeans. And immediately messed something up. "By the way, how was the paczkis this morning? Yeah, yeah! That was very good," Romney said. His message: We are not so different, you and I. We have both just eaten the same food! But then Romney began talking about the powdered sugar on the paczki. There was no powdered sugar. The doughnuts were glazed and bare. "Reminded me of what's going on outside," Romney said, comparing the falling snow to a doughnut that people had not eaten. (Had he not really eaten one of the paczki, after all? Had Romney's campaign given the naked doughnuts to the crowd, while Romney was eating upgraded, sugar-dusted ones backstage?)</blockquote> Passing out baked goods is apparently something of a Romney hallmark, per this pool report of his <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/21/sc-primary-mitt-romney-ha_n_1220447.html" target="_hplink">foisting Panera on reporters</a> during a flight.
A Couple Of Cadillacs
Mitt Romney tried to woo voters in Michigan when he off-handedly listed the American cars he and his wife owned, but may have instead ended up painting himself as out of touch. "I like the fact that most of the cars I see are Detroit-made automobiles," Romney <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/24/mitt-romney-cadillac_n_1299740.html" target="_hplink">said during an economic policy address</a>. "I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs actually. I used to have a Dodge pickup truck, so I used to have all three covered." Ann Romney's SRXs, retail new for $35,485 to $54,525.
During a December debate, Mitt Romney tried to make a point by challenging rival Rick Perry to a bet over the content of his book, "No Apology." "You've raised that before, Rick, and you're simply wrong," Romney <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/10/mitt-romneys-10000-bet-rick-perry_n_1141387.html" target="_hplink">said</a>. "Rick, I'll tell you what: 10,000 bucks?" He may have been right, but it was the dollar amount that raised eyebrows. $10,000 is <a href="https://twitter.com/#!/WestWingReport/status/145696946579972097" target="_hplink">three months' salary</a> for many Americans.
During the New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/09/new-hampshire-primary-romney-rivals-final-appeals_n_1193570.html" target="_hplink">told an audience</a> at a campaign stop that he understood the fear of being fired, and that "there were a couple of times when I was worried I was going to get pink-slipped." Then-opponent Rick Perry mocked the statement, saying, "I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips - whether he'd have enough of them to hand out."
Oh, My Goodness!
At a campaign stop this spring in Derry, New Hampshire, Mitt Romney pulled a gag that raised eyebrows. While posing for a photo with his arms around the waitresses at Mary Ann's Diner, Romney suddenly jumped forward, acting as if someone had pinched his hind quarters."Oh, my goodness gracious!" he exclaimed. The GOP presidential candidate later said he was "just teasing" and the gag is "kind of fun to do."
Chrome For The Hollandaise
During a Granite State visit, Mitt Romney stopped off at Blake's Restaurant in Manchester. On the way out he met with the diner's owner <a href="http://www.slate.com/blogs/weigel/2011/06/14/mitt_romney_vs_diners.html" target="_hplink">and cracked this egg</a>: <blockquote>I saw a young man over there with eggs benedict. He had the eggs benedict with a hollandaise sauce and the eggs, there. And I was going to suggest to you that you serve your eggs with hollandaise sauce and hubcaps. Because there's no plates like chrome for the hollandaise!</blockquote> <em>Get it!?</em> The owner laughed politely.
Corporations Are People
At an August rally in Iowa, Mitt Romney attempted to school a heckler by telling him that "corporations are people." "Corporations are people, my friend... of course they are," Romney said, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/11/mitt-romney-heckled-iowa_n_924426.html" target="_hplink">answering a question about entitlement reform</a>. "Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people. Where do you think it goes? Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People's pockets. Human beings my friend."
Know Each Other?
Trying to make small talk with patrons at a New Hampshire diner, Romney asked a married couple sitting in a booth together, "You know each other?" Other Romney conversation nonstarters, <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-day-of-awkwardness-with-mitt-romney/2011/06/14/AGApq6UH_story.html" target="_hplink">via The <em>Washington Post</em></a>: <blockquote>To a man wearing a "Joe Gauci Landscaping" T-shirt: "You do some landscaping work?" To two older women who just came from the gym: "Are your knees, hips doing okay?" ... Romney seemed to be auditing one man: "What's happened to your financials the last couple of years?"</blockquote>
'I'm Also Unemployed'
On the campaign trail in Florida, Romney and a small group of voters discussed unemployment and how to find a job in the struggling economy. The GOP presidential candidate worth more than $200 million chimed in, "I should tell my story. I'm also unemployed." The crowd laughed and asked if he was on LinkedIn. "I'm networking," Romney said, "I have my sight on a particular job."
Who Let The Dogs Out?
In the now-infamous video from Romney's 2008 presidential bid, Mitt is seen meeting with voters at a Martin Luther King Day parade in Florida. After nervously approaching a crowd of youngsters and awkwardly weaving his arm into the huddle, he randomly <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/01/22/mitt-romney-who-let-the-d_n_82486.html" target="_hplink">blurted out</a>, "Who let the dogs out? Whoo Whoo!" For the full effect, watch the YouTube video above.
Anyone Over 100?
At a town hall event at a senior center in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney asked the elderly audience if anyone was over 100 years old. The exchange, <a href="http://dailycaller.com/2011/08/25/romneys-awkward-senior-moment/" target="_hplink">via the Daily Caller</a>: <blockquote>"Anybody here over 100 years old?" Romney asked. Crickets. "Not yet, but we're getting there, right? We're on our way," continued Romney. "We're hopefully going to get there soon." "Well, not so soon. We hope to get there safe and sound."</blockquote>
Airplane Scuffle With LMFAO Rapper
In February 2010, Mitt Romney got into a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/15/mitt-romney-threatened-on-plane_n_463322.html" target="_hplink">scuffle on an airplane</a> traveling back from the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. A Romney spokesman initially told reporters that a passenger became "physically violent" after Romney asked him to move his seat upright for takeoff. Rapper "Sky Blu from the group LMFAO later identified himself as the passenger, saying Romney loudly told him several times to straighten his seat. When Romney reached forward and grabbed Blu's shoulder, the rapper knocked Romney's hand away. <a href="http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1632218/lmfaos-sky-blu-was-other-man-mitt-romneys-plane-fight.jhtml" target="_hplink">From MTV</a>: <blockquote>If Romney had asked nicely, Blu said he might have put his seat up, but since he was so rude ... Well, next thing you know, Blu said Romney reached out and put his hand on his shoulder and asked him again to put his seat up. </blockquote> <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/18/mitt-romneys-fight-with-a_n_468407.html" target="_hplink">Blu said</a>, "And I didn't take it any further than that. I just wanted the man not to touch me; that's it."
At a campaign stop in Colorado, Romney mingled with patrons at a Mexican joint in Denver. From <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/romney-sharpens-attack-on-dodd-frank-financial-regulations/2011/06/20/AGPbUwdH_story.html" target="_hplink"><em>The Washington Post</em></a>: <blockquote>At one table, a boy offered Romney a $1 bill that he had folded origami-style for good luck. The candidate happily accepted it, but then rifled through his wallet looking for money to give the boy in return. Romney had a $100 bill, but evidently did not want to give that away. An aide handed him a $1 bill, but Romney said that wasn't enough. Then, deep inside his leather billfold, Romney found a $5 bill. "We'll give you an Abraham Lincoln back," he said, handing it to the boy.</blockquote>
Mingling with voters at a <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/mitt-romney-reaches-out-but-often-lacks-common-touch/2011/10/21/gIQAkUVc7L_story.html?hpid=z3" target="_hplink">campaign stop in Iowa</a>, Romney ordered a plate of fried chicken, corn and baked beans. While chatting with the market's owner, Romney, ever the business executive, curiously referred to the meal as a "product."
Politicians Get Recognized
<a href="http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0711/59002.html#ixzz1biat38lC" target="_hplink">Courtesy of Politico</a>, this video shows Romney trying his hand at comedy during a campaign stop in New Hampshire. Romney talks to the crowd about how his four years in politics compare to his 25 years in the private sector, and how politicians get recognized in public. <blockquote>I was in the Newark airport, flying to Boston, and I was reading my newspaper and I heard someone shriek and I looked up and she was pointing at me. She had on a cowboy hat, cowboy boots; she was a Chinese exchange student. I knew she wasn't Texan because she had her jeans tucked into her boots. She pointed at me and she said, 'You're John Kerry!" And I said, "I sure am."</blockquote> For the full act, and the audience non-response, check out the video above.
Aloof Plane Flight
Mitt Romney displayed some particularly aloof behavior when a passenger sitting next to him on a fight to Boston tried to strike up conversation, <em>The New York Times</em> reported Nov. 6. <a href="http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/in-flight-romney-is-aloof-with-fellow-passengers/" target="_hplink">From the <em>Times</em></a>: <blockquote>According to Ms. McClanahan, about an hour into the flight -- which Mr. Romney mostly spent reading <em>USA Today</em> and using an iPad while wearing headphones -- she told him her idea for improving the American health care system: slashing overhead costs by switching to an electronic billing system. "He looked at me blankly and said, 'I understand,' then put his iPad headphones in and kept reading," she said.</blockquote> When another passenger asked Romney for a restarauant recommendation in Boston, he told her "I can't give you any .. You'll have to ask someone else," according to the article.
For 15 years Mitt Romney ran the private equity group Bain Capital. The successful financial company earned him millions. <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2007/dec/16/nation/na-mittbain16" target="_hplink">An <em>Los Angeles Times</em> article</a> about Romney's career at Bain painted a picture of the businessman under strain. "In tense meetings, he sometimes perspired so heavily it became an office joke. Or he nervously flapped his tie and said, "Oooohhh, what do we do now?" former colleagues told the paper.
When Romney entered the 2008 presidential race, he released a <a href="http://www.myspace.com/video/mittromney/the-decision/16602414" target="_hplink">13-minute video </a>of his family aimed at humanizing him. The video, titled "The Decision," went viral, but not for the reasons Romney wanted. The short film is narrated mostly by his wife Anne Romney, who comes across as charming, personable and engaging, while the rest of the scene gives off a cloying whiff of privilege, cloister and artificiality. Mitt sits down with his family to discuss the pros and cons of running for president, although Anne had already admitted that the decision had basically been made earlier, undermining the conceit of the filmed family gathering. Mitt, apparently unable to behave informally even with his family, whips out a white legal pad to take notes on his family's discussion. "Let me ask: How do you minimize the downsides?" the business executive asks his sons and daughters. Tagg Romney, who suggests he runs, has one warning for his pop: "The country may think of you as a laughing stock."