On why tomorrow night’s debate won’t affect the election
Over the next 72 hours, much of the news media and political blogosphere is going to be devoted to tomorrow night’s Big Debate, as Romney and Obama finally go mano y mano. The coverage will be nothing if not predictable.
Today, each side’s ground forces will be rubbing elbows with members of the press, attempting to lower expectations for their candidate. [Side note: When exactly did we let this become a thing? How did we as a nation get to the point where the guy we wanted to become the Most Powerful Person In The Free World was the one that inspired us to collectively reflect, “Gee, I really thought he was going to suck rocks but he was actually pretty mediocre?”] Tomorrow night, live-bloggers around the country will sit anxiously waiting to type the words “draws first blood.” Thursday, pundits for each side will look to spin wild claims of epic victory – even for horrible gaffes. There will be one or perhaps two moments that will be endlessly rebroadcast and chain-emailed with breathless declarations that this is the most devastating political one-liner ever.  Much of what each candidate says will be parodied by Saturday Night Live, and afterwards the media will deconstruct those parodies with furrowed brows. All in all, pretty exciting stuff.
With all of the media bombardment that is about to rain down on us, you will be excused for deducing that this must be the most game-changing debate in the most important presidential election in the history of the universe. Which actually makes it kind of a shame that this promises to be the most meaningless, wheel-spinning debate in my lifetime.
Forgive me if I sound like a broken record, but why on Earth is anyone assuming that this is still a horse race?
According to aggregate polls, at this point Romney can collect every single electoral vote from every state that is a toss up and all the ones from states that are just slightly leaning Obama, and he still won’t have enough to reach the needed 270 plateau. Republicans may be talking a good game in public about how this is simply because all polls (including FOX) are part of a vast liberal conspiracy, but that isn’t stopping the big dogs from starting to pick up their chips and move to a different table. The base seems to remain convinced that if they can ratchet up their sheer, palpable hatred for Obama just one more notch it will be enough to raise the water over flood line and flush him out to sea. Unfortunately for them, you don’t get extra credit points for style or intensity; no matter the level of your hostility, you still just get the one vote.
This creates a bit of a problem for the Romney campaign, because the obvious truth of the matter is that outside of the GOP base, people tend to like the president. But almost no one – including the GOP base – cares for Romney.
Half of all Americans hold an unfavorable opinion of him. If you want a good comparative metric for that statistic, this means he has higher unfavorables than George W. Bush, the very person Romney has been charged with making independent voters forget. If you want another, try this on for size: Romney’s net favorable is -1. Want to take a guess at the only other presidential candidates that had negative net favorables this late in the race? Carter (in the vs. Reagan election), Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton (‘92), Dole, Kerry and McCain. The only winner in that entire bunch is Clinton, and he needed pesky leprechaun Ross Perot to split the conservative vote.
As I said in my reporting from the Values Voter Summit – the annual dog and pony convention for the GOP base – I did not speak with one person that said that they trusted Mitt Romney. Speaker Paul Ryan’s whole pitch to the red meat crowd was that if they just took the time to get to know Mitt better, they might like him. Has a major-party VP candidate ever had to deliver that plea to the party’s own base? Can we seriously be discussing the potential electability of a guy that needs such a cringe-worthy, in-house endorsement from his number two?
The public’s dislike of Mitt is starting to manifest in electoral ways. Many on the left worried early on that the Republican’s mammoth war chest would force feed so many anti-Obama ads on the voting populace that a Romney presidency might be a no brainer. But it isn’t working out that way. Given the choice between believing what Obama says and what Mitt says, independent voters give the benefit of the doubt to Obama. Even worse for Mitt, focus groups show that the most effective potential messages he can deliver to undecided voters (e.g.: compassion for the poor, cozying up to women’s healthcare issues) are the types of messages his base is waiting to crucify him on.
Because of all of this, I am having trouble imagining exactly what theoretical events would have to occur in tomorrow night’s debate that would, to quote Chris Christie, “dramatically change the race.”
I know the conservatives are hoping that undecided voters will tune in and see Mitt Romney suddenly reveal the Ronald Reagan-level of charm that he has heretofore been hiding. And I know they are expecting Obama to fumble and stutter over every issue without a teleprompter. (Because really, what kind of brain-washed, liberal, Lotus-eater would you have to be to assume that some chump – who’s only been a Harvard Law Review editor, a US Senator, a come-from-nowhere-to-beat-a-Clinton-in-a-Democratic-primary winner, and an incumbent President – would be able to debate his way out of a wet paper bag?) Unfortunately for them, neither of those things is going to happen. And even if they both do somehow magically occur, no undecided voters will see it happen. For the most part, undecided voters are people that don’t really follow politics all that closely, and as such they don’t really watch debates.
In fact, I can think of only two scenarios where tonight’s debate leads to a Romney administration: Either Jim Leher dies of a heart attack mid-debate and Romney brings him back to life with a touch of his hand, or Obama eats a live baby on camera as he laughs manically.
Short of that, I just can’t see it happening.
 About three months from now, however, everyone will struggle to remember exactly who said these quotes, and in which election.
Sophie Quinton from the National Journal recently compiled the Top Eight Debate Zingers from American presidential elections. On the off chance that only eight doesn’t seem quite anemic enough a number for a country almost a quarter millennium old, Quinton had to cheat and pull half of them from vice presidential and primary debates. Worse, with few exceptions they are all either unmemorable, terrible, or both. Sure, Reagan’s masterpiece “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience” is there, as is his iconic “There you go again.” And obviously, so too is Lloyd Bensten’s oft-paraphrased “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” But after that it goes down hill pretty fast. The worst are two incredibly lame TV advertisement tie-ins: A strained “Where’s the beef” call from a primary debate that featured a bunch of rich white guys who had probably never stepped foot in a Wendy’s in their life, and an unbelievably painfull-to-watch “Joe Isuzu” reference.
Romney supporters that are hanging their hopes on his campaign’s new strategy of prepping Mitt with pre-canned “zingers” might want to ask themselves two questions: 1. When one considers how historically rare great zingers really are, is this really the wisest basket to be putting your metaphorical eggs in? 2. If you’re being completely honest with yourself, do you picture Mitt being the guy that delivers the well timed, perfectly pitched comedic home run, or do you think he’s more likely to pull an awkward Joe Isuzu, followed by an awkward “hahaha“?