Mike Edwards, coauthor of Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well, analyzes the first Presidential and Vice Presidential debates and tells us what to expect for the debates still to come.
Common wisdom says that Mitt Romney won the first debate because he was “energetic” while the President appeared “lethargic.” It certainly destroys any lingering myth that presidential elections are about actual policy; despite the best efforts of the fact-checkers, impression trumps policy every time. Besides, let’s be honest: most people would rather not have a drawn-out discussion of tax plans. Big Bird’s possible unemployment is so much more amusing.
Overall, the debate was about as interesting and informative as a 90 minute lecture on macroeconomics given by a C student.
At least the Vice Presidential Debate had some fireworks. Of course, the “policy debate” still came down to dueling platitudes and mischaracterizations, and it will have less impact on voters than an Election Day rainstorm over Ohio and Pennsylvania. But it made for good television; and, honestly, that’s what both the media and the voters really care about.
Now the focus is back on the top of the ticket. Moving forward, the worry for the candidates is that Romney’s performance was not as dominant, and Obama’s not as bad, as many pundits have been portraying. It isn’t entirely the media’s fault: we would all rather hear about “Obama’s Debacle” than about “Obama’s Mediocre Performance.” But this creates danger. Governor Romney must now deal with raised expectations. People may now expect him to dominate each of the next two debates in a way that he didn’t really dominate the first one. Romney’s campaign needs to dampen expectations as much as possible, lest he find himself facing an impossible hurdle. Meanwhile, President Obama has to avoid overreacting to his mistakes. His basic strategy was sound: be the more likable candidate, avoid major gaffes, and let Romney make his own mistakes. Just do it with a bit more zest.