Schedules and venues have been set, formats have been selected, and competitors have begun strategizing for victory in America's upcoming political Olympics: the 2012 presidential and vice presidential debates, now only two months away. Let us scrutinize the recent announcement of formats by the Commission on Presidential Debates for early indications about this year's round of candidate match-ups.
As per recent tradition, the series will unfold during the month of October, beginning on the 3rd and continuing through the 22nd, two weeks before voters cast their ballots. By international standards, American debates take place unusually early in the process, well before citizens go to the polls. There are historical reasons for this: in 1980 incumbent Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan debated only a single time, exactly one week before the election, and Reagan's strong performance gave Carter insufficient time to regain his footing. Presidential debaters ever since have allowed themselves a generous window of opportunity in which to overcome an unfavorable showing. It is worth noting that this year's final debate on October 22 falls later than normal--one week closer to Election Day than the last debate of 2008.
A potential wrinkle on the scheduling front: at least some of the debates appear to conflict with big-ticket sporting events. The first debate on October 3 happens the same evening as Major League Baseball's last day of regular season play. The concluding debate on the 22nd coincides with Monday night football - a game in which Obama's hometown Chicago Bears will take on Romney's hometown Detroit Lions. How many viewers are apt to choose athletics over politics? And might this help or hurt a particular candidate?
In keeping with tradition, three presidential and one vice presidential debates are scheduled, with at least several days separating the various installments in the series. This gives each event time to develop as a discrete news story, both before and after the fact. Unlike 1992, when four debates occurred within nine days, this year's more languid schedule means that the series may not build much cumulative momentum, because the media will cover each program individually. Between the first and second Obama-Romney debate, for example, there is a gap of nearly two weeks--plenty of time for journalists to hit the reset button.
Will the proposed debate schedule actually go forward as proposed, or can we expect the campaigns to press for changes? The sponsoring Commission on Presidential Debates sets dates and venues months in advance, and so far neither the Obama nor the Romney campaigns has officially signed on. But tampering with the debate schedule carries risks, because it suggests to voters that a candidate is balking, as with George H.W. Bush in 1992 and George W. Bush eight years later.
In 2008, just days before his first debate with Barack Obama, John McCain called for the event to be postponed, dramatically citing the nation's economic crisis. When Obama responded that he would attend the debate as planned, with or without his opponent, McCain got outfoxed. Ultimately the Republican candidate showed up as originally scheduled, but his ill-advised maneuver arguably lost the debate for McCain before it even began.
Formats for the 2012 series, as proposed by the debate commission, are similar to the Obama-McCain matches of 2008. Each debate will run for 90 minutes and begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time. In the first and last, a single moderator will question the candidates, with one program devoted to domestic issues and the other to international affairs. In the town hall debate citizens will pose questions on topics both international and domestic. The vice presidential candidates will also field questions on all subjects, asked by a moderator.
The format for the first and last debates calls for six thematic discussion blocks of about fifteen minutes each, to be designated by the moderator and announced in advance. Although this differs somewhat from previous structures, viewers will probably notice little change.
This year's vice presidential debate, on the other hand, does promises to be a more substantive exercise than 2008's Biden-Palin extravaganza--which, for the record, outdrew all the Obama-McCain debates in the ratings. In that debate handlers for Sarah Palin negotiated unusually short response times: 90 seconds for a candidate's initial answer, followed by two minutes of "discussion" between debaters--as though any issue of significance could be discussed in two minutes. The strategy paid off: at that superficial level Palin was able to hold her own. Presumably this year's Republican vice presidential candidate will be better equipped to survive a debate format that calls for ten minutes of conversation on a specific topic.
Another potential difference from 2008: instead of candidates standing behind lecterns, as Obama and McCain did in their first joint appearance, the debate commission is recommending that the participants be seated around a table in all but the town hall. This sit-down format was used to positive effect in the best of the three Obama-McCain matches, the closing debate moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News. A table debate presents a less formal set-up than lecterns, with greater possibility of visual and rhetorical spontaneity. The Sarkozy-Hollande presidential "face-à-face" held in France a few months ago vividly illustrates how stimulating a sit-down presidential debate can be.
Of the different formats to be employed in 2012, the most problematic is likely to be the town hall. Once innovative and unpredictable, town hall presidential debates have become tedious, thanks to heavy-handed restrictions imposed by the political handlers who negotiate format details. In 1992, in the first-ever town hall presidential debate, no limitations were placed on the questioners or on moderator Carole Simpson, resulting in a memorable and enlightening evening of televised political theater. In subsequent town halls, campaign enforcers reduced the spontaneity of the questioning and clamped down on the moderator's role. The 2008 town hall debate in Nashville, choreographed to within an inch of its life, was the dullest of the Obama-McCain series and one of the dullest in American history.
It bears mention that everything related to presidential debates -- moderators, formats, schedule and so forth -- will be up for renegotiation by the campaigns after the national party conventions, if not sooner. However, with Obama and Romney evenly matched in the polls, neither side stands to gain from a protracted debate-over-debates. After all, these six hours of television might just determine who wins the 2012 presidential election.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred to the 2008 election as the 2004 election on two separate occasions. This has since been corrected.
This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.
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