Presidential debates loom as Romney’s last best hope

Mitt Romney, flanked by Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul during a Republican candidates' debate last year, needs a strong performance in this month’s debates against Barack Obama to save his campaign. EPA/CJ Gunther

The US presidential election is almost over before the best part – the presidential debates.

With Barack Obama looking almost unbeatable at the beginning of October, Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s last chance at the 11th hour is a stellar performance in the three presidential debates that will take place this month.

Romney can’t afford to simply hope for a poor performance from Obama. As he did with his understated convention speech, Obama is likely to play it safe as long as he maintains a lead over Romney in the opinion polls.

The benefits of the American system

While there are many aspects of the American electoral process that are far from best practice, Australian politics could benefit from following the American model of presidential debates. The Rudd government promised such an independent commission in Australia; however, this good idea seems dead.

Instead the debates between Australian prime ministers and opposition leaders in recent years have been a national embarrassment. There is one short debate, a practice that distinctly favours the incumbent.

Why are the American debates a model of sorts? Apart from being run by a Commission on Presidential Debates and the regular appearance of the excellent Jim Lehrer as a moderator, the debates offer moments of significant political drama (real and contrived) and put candidates on the record in a very public way that provides a standard to judge them by if elected.

The 2012 candidates

Obama’s greatest aim in the upcoming round of debates will be to not look too overconfident or aggressive.

He did an excellent job of avoiding John McCain’s attempts to provoke him in the 2008 debates, where Obama was cool under pressure and revealed his first class temperament.

Romney is likely to perform beyond expectations – not hard to achieve given the general failings of his campaign recently (and all year long really).

Romney is likely to be more articulate and probably more direct about his policy proposals than many might expect.

The classic debates

All students of American politics have heard or read about the first ever televised presidential debate between JFK and Nixon in 1960. In the pre-YouTube tellings of this event in my undergraduate years, Nixon had refused to wear make-up saying that was for sissies and thus his five o’clock shadow made him look shifty and devious.

Seeing the film of the debate years later I was disappointed: Kennedy was less charismatic than I had been told and Nixon cleaner cut. In 1964 LBJ simply refused to debate Goldwater: why give a drowning man a chance was the calculation of the Johnson camp.

In 1968 and 1972, Nixon refused to debate his opponents believing the 1960 debate had cost him the presidency. In the often forgotten 1976 election, in the second debate against Carter, Ford said “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”.

This was a significant gaffe and reinforced the image of Ford as the man that couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time (a sanitised version of LBJ’s famous put down of Ford).

Preparations are well underway at the University of Denver in Colorado for this week’s debate. EPA/Michael Reynolds

The debates are often about reinforcing expectations or trying to break a stereotype held about a candidate. The single 1980 debate was important not because Reagan necessarily beat Carter, but because he showed he could speak without notes and foot it with Carter as a credible alternative for president.

If the public has low expectations regarding a candidate’s debating skills, as they did with Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2000, a competent and personable performance enhances the candidate’s stocks at a crucial time. This has to be Romney’s great hope: that with the public expecting very little of him, he significantly exceeds expectations with articulate and convincing performances.

Performances is the right word here because these encounters are not really debates; instead they are often duelling speeches or competing proposals to win “the living room test”.

The best performers

Some presidential nominees are particularly good at presenting complex policies and political ideas in their short responses to questions in these debates. Bill Clinton and John Kerry come to mind as candidates who raised the quality and tone of the debates in this manner.

However, it is body language, sighs and aggressiveness that the press often focus on in their debate summaries. The biggest loser in this regard was Al Gore in 2000. Given how close the 2000 election was, Gore’s sigh-ridden performances may have cost him the election.

One of the amusing press stories during the 2004 debates, that got a lot of play in Australia, was that an odd looking bulge at the back of Bush’s neck during that election’s first debate contained a device telling him the answers to the questions. Given that it was Bush’s worst performance maybe Cheney was barking ideas to him.

The big issues? Usually not.

In the best case scenario for those who think there are important issues regarding debt, jobs, taxation and the limits of American military intervention at stake in 2012, Romney will force a debate on these questions in what has often been a policy-lite campaign year.

However, despite being a former venture capitalist and the guy who wrote and spoke so vividly about the audacity of hope, these two candidates are risk adverse.

Thus the more likely scenario will be an ultimately frustrating series of debates that skirt around the edges of the significant problems facing America.