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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