In about two weeks, Americans will go to the polls to vote for their next president. At stake: two starkly different visions of America fronted by two very different men: the Democratic President Barack Obama, and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
With the two candidates now running neck and neck toward a photo finish, each and every vote will count. The majority of Americans will have already decided who they next want in the White House. And, some will have even cast their votes. But, for a handful of undecided voters, Monday's final debate in Boca Raton could have a decisive impact.
Typically, presidential debates draw in fewer viewers as they go on. But, in this tightly contested election where anything can happen, every day counts. For the second time in two weeks, the presidential debates have upset the momentum of this race. After a listless performance earlier this month, Obama fought back last Wednesday, wrestling his opponent on matters of tax, immigration and China. And, early polls have awarded the president for his efforts.
In the second debate, Obama both looked and sounded presidential. In an era of television sound bites that many people have access to on their mobile phones, a candidate's demeanor, perhaps more than what and how he says it, is critical. As Jonathan Jones from the Guardian points out: "Watching these debates is a lesson in the power of visual communication. It is the way the rival candidates stand, smile and move that tell us who they are."
This was famously apparent in the first presidential debate ever to be televised in 1960. Those who listened to the Nixon-Kennedy clash on radio thought that Richard Nixon had won. But, for the majority of people who watched it on TV, John F. Kennedy was regarded to be the victor because, in the words one commentator, he looked like a "bronzed warrior" against Nixon and his shifty looking five o'clock shadow.
On Wednesday, Obama managed to upstage his opponent even by the confident manner in which he sat on his stool. His greatest weapon however was his smile. And, he used it to devastating effect as he delivered some of his most withering remarks. As Jonathan Jones points out, "It was not a flashy, contrived PR image that bought the President back into the race: it was an aura of authenticity."
But, Romney's commanding performance earlier this month reveals that debates can be a game changer. And, in this election, nothing is certain. Up until this point, the campaign was more or less going Obama's way, especially after Romney's disparaging remark about 47 percent of the nation being parasitic loafers. In fact, the former governor of Massachussets was shaping up to be the least popular candidate in history according to New York Times columnist David Brooks.
But, then something unexpected happened: Romney not only dominated the first debate, he unveiled a more passionate side of his character that marked such a refreshing break from his usual wooden demeanor; it was enough to reinvigorate his campaign and put the White House back on the table. He has now secured a lead in several polls, putting crucial battleground states like Ohio back in play. No Republican has ever won the presidency without first securing this state.
With the two candidates now locked in a dead heat, all eyes are focused on Monday's final clash.
In the past, presidential debates have been known to change the outcome of a race. Before George W. Bush's name became synonymous with blunderous remarks, he secured his victory in 2000 after facing off a temperamental Al Gore. And an enthusiastic Bill Clinton won the vote in 1992 against a bored-looking George Bush Senior who kept checking his watch.
The narrative in the media also plays its part. As Henry Porter in the Observer points out, a study on the 2004 face-off between George Bush and John Kerry shows that people "shown no commentary" thought that Kerry was the victor. But, those who were "watching NBC coverage, which praised Bush's performance, insisted that Bush had won."
However, in our modern world dominated by instant opinion and the means to broadcast it via Facebook and Twitter, "the Chinese walls that divided reporting and opinion have crumbled," says Jurek Martin in the Financial Times: "Tweets are no longer just birdsong."
After holding a hardline position to win over the more conservative members of his party, the Republican challenger is now tacking to the center in order to attract those crucial swing voters who will decide the fate of this election. But, this new incarnation of Romney, who flips-flops according to the political winds, is confusing at best. In the words of Robert Reich, the former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Romney sounds like he has conviction, "which means he's either convinced himself that the lies he tells are true, or he's a fabulous actor."
At present, nearly two in three whites will vote for Romney, and four out of five non-whites will vote for Obama. And, according to the polls, the Republican's supporters are more likely to vote than the president's. In such a tight race, each vote will count as much as the next one, but only if it is cast. Most elections get billed as the most important in a generation, but with America teetering on a fiscal cliff in an era of profound climate change, this one really is. And, in Obama's own words: "Only you have the power to move us forward."