Why the Denver Debate Could Matter

In recent weeks, as Mitt Romney has been practicing his debate “zingers” and the Obama campaign has been “managing expectations” by portraying the president as the lousiest debater since Admiral Stockdale, plenty of pundits—progressive ones, mostly—have been assuring us that the importance of debates is seriously overblown. Our own Jamelle Bouie sums up the argument well: “A quick look at decades of Gallup polling shows little change in the election after the debates, and political scientists find that ‘the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.’ Put another way, if you want to know how the race will look after the debates, pay attention to what it looks like before the debates.” True enough. Facts are facts. But in this case, those facts are definitely taking the fun out of the closest thing to a Super Bowl that politics delivers. So let’s consider a few reasons why tomorrow night could prove an exception to the “debates don’t matter” rule.

For starters, despite the comical efforts of Team Obama to cast their guy as the underdog, most viewers will be expecting Obama to win—twice as many, according to the polls. That gives Romney a decided advantage, as John Cassidy notes: “Like a beaten-down value stock, Romney doesn’t have to perform very well to exceed expectations. If he persuades even half the country that he has bested Obama, he could well enjoy a significant bounce.” 

It’s also helpful for Romney that the first debate, which will surely be the most-watched and most-hyped, is about domestic policy—far better for him than foreign affairs, where his knowledge base is thin. The only way he can cut into Obama’s lead, especially in battleground states like Ohio or Colorado, is to convince voters that that he’d be a better steward of the economy—and not just for the wealthiest Americans. Tomorrow night is his best, and maybe last, chance to make the case around which his entire campaign has centered. 

There’s one final reason to believe tomorrow night could change the campaign narrative: because the pundits would love it. In the 24/7 spin cycle of campaign coverage, storylines get stale quickly—and the Obama surge is now a month old. If Romney holds his ground and delivers a couple of memorable attacks and zingers, half the headlines on Thursday and Friday are guaranteed to contain the word “comeback.” It’s so much more interesting than the status quo, after all—just as a debate that might make the election tighter and less predictable is so much more compelling than one that won't.   

So They Say

"Seventy percent of Americans want the American dream. They believe in the American idea. Only 30 percent want their welfare state. Before too long, we could become a society where the net majority of Americans are takers, not makers."

Paul Ryan, from a speech in November 2011 at The American Spectator's Robert L. Bartley gala dinner, unearthed by The Huffington Post 

Daily Meme: As Colorado Goes...

  • Tomorrow, the first debate of the presidential election takes place in Denver, and the reaction from the audience in battleground Colorado may prove crucial to the election's outcome. 
  • "As Colorado goes, so too may go the nation," as Mark McKinnon writes. "That’s why this first debate matters so much for Romney. It’s make-or-break time."
  • It’s a far cry from the old days, when Colorado going Republican was a foregone conclusion. As former state Republican chair Dick Wadhams says, "I remember the days when a president or a presidential candidate would rarely make an appearance here."
  • Why the change in the state's ideological hue? Mirroring national trends, Colorado's growing Latino population is becoming a reliably Democratic constituency, making the state into the battleground it currently is.
  • One of the most important counties in determining where Colorado's electoral votes go will be Larimer, which went for Obama in 2008.
  • Forty percent of the state's Republicans live in the Denver suburbs, near where the debate will take place at the University of Colorado.
  • A grassroots organizer predicts "Colorado will be one of the closest states"—which could explain why Mitt Romney held a big rally there on Monday, Ann Romney campaigned on Tuesday, and President Obama is planning an event on Thursday. 
  • The latest Five-Thirty-Eight projections give Obama a 76-percent chance of winning the state, putting it more solidly in his camp than either Florida or Ohio.
  • But Western states hate nothing more than being politically predictable. "The pendulum swings back and forth and will continue to do so," as one GOP operative points out.

What We're Writing

  • Monica Potts on the bare-knuckles Senate brawl in Massachusetts.
  • Paul Waldman on "why there's no brilliant strategy waiting for Romney to use."

What We're Reading

  • Ta-Nehesi Coates analyzes why Ralph Reed and other conservatives think theremust be something fishy about a black man being elected president.
  • Eugene Robinson asks: Which Romney will show up Wednesday night?
  • The traveling press corps sees a different side of Romney—a regular "Mormon Larry David” who’s far more comfortable off the record.
  • The brain behind many of the Republican Party's best ads this election season is an exceptionally well-dressed, Terrence Malick-worshipping 24-year old.
  • Hipsters are the key ingredient in Barack Obama's digital operations, as Tim Murphy reports.
  • Romney stopped by a Chipotle today, and magic happened.

Poll of the Day

Americans’ economic confidence soared in September, according to Gallup—up eight points from August. That is obviously good news for an incumbent president, especially because confidence in the country’s economic outlook rose nine points among political independents. Republicans remain resolutely sour.

 For more polling information, go to the Prospect’s 2012 election map.

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