Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Debate is Romney's chance to rally

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
October 3, 2012 -- Updated 0755 GMT (1555 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Timothy Stanley: Candidates are lowering debate expectations
  • Stanley: Mitt Romney needs a game changer
  • He says Romney rallied in debates during primaries and could do it again
  • Stanley: If Romney can shake Obama, it will have bigger effect than if president prevails

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- The presidential campaigns are doing their best to play down expectations ahead of Wednesday's debate. Team Obama says that Mitt Romney has had the most time to practice and that its guy is no good at "sound bites."

Team Romney says that President Barack Obama enters the contest with the advantage of being a "uniquely gifted speaker." Both sides are in danger of selling themselves short, of promising a debate so mediocre that Wednesday night's edition of "Family Feud" might get its best ratings ever.

But the expectations battle reflects the psychology of the campaigns. On Obama's side, it's part of a general effort to convince people that debates don't even matter -- that he has this thing wrapped up already and voters might as well abstain from politics until Election Day. For Romney's side, it's about preparing Americans for what they hope will be a surprisingly brilliant performance by their man. The Republicans are praying for a game changer.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

The Week magazine puts Romney's chances of having that at 60% -- and not without cause. Some Republicans indicate that Romney hopes to "fact check" the president, which would suggest an aggressive strategy of weighing him down with damning statistics -- such an unemployment rate stuck above 8% or a debt of $16 trillion. They're probably hoping that Obama will either wither or explode. And if anyone can provoke that reaction, it's Romney. His recent gaffes have made us forget that he proved an effective speaker in the 2012 Republican primaries when the debates turned out to be unusually important.

Opinion: Debate coach -- Obama, Romney are top performers

Newt Gingrich revived his campaign with a strong performance days before the South Carolina primary. But Romney rescued his own candidacy with an even better performance the following week -- helping him to win Florida and stop Gingrich's Southern advance. The difference between those two confrontations? Gingrich's win was in front of a cheering audience; Romney's win happened when the audience wasn't allowed to participate. Romney isn't a crowd pleaser, and he does his best when he can speak straight to the viewer at home without the distractions of clapping and booing. The good news about Wednesday is that the audience will almost certainly be bound to silence.

Of course, even if Romney does deliver a performance worthy of Lincoln, there's no guarantee that it will make any difference. Suppose that Romney lands a few punches and Obama outs himself as a socialist live on air. Romney's victory would have to tick several boxes before that translates into a leap in the polls. Lots of undecided voters would have to tune in, the press has to share the opinion that Romney won (and the Republicans are forever complaining about bias), Team Romney has to pitch its guy's performance to the public (and there have been plenty of complaints about its competence when it comes to message), and, ultimately, the voters have to be convinced to care.

Anticipation builds for first debate
Downplaying debate expectations
Christie predicts game changer
Clinton: Debates are crucial for Romney

Opinion: How Obama can win the debate

In 1984, Walter Mondale won his first debate against Ronald Reagan hands down. But not only did it barely shift the polls, but Reagan rebounded with one of his best performances ever at their rematch two weeks later. In short, there's a lot of truth in Team Obama's insistence that debates don't decide elections.

However, this election hasn't been like many others. Rather than focusing on the economy, it's been about culture, morals, personality and trust. The importance of likability has been enormous, with many voters who ought to lean toward Romney turned off by his background as a wealthy venture capitalist. So this is his chance to showcase himself as both a compelling politician and a normal human being. Expect Romney to talk about his family and father -- subjects close to his heart -- in an effort to redefine his national image. Yes, he's tried to do that many, many times before. But there's always hoping that this time it will work.

And if it does, then the expectations war will break in his favor. The Obama campaign might be doing its best to convince the audience that Romney has an inbuilt advantage, but (ironically) that's undermined by the president's cherished reputation as a brilliant speaker. Polling of voters' predictions about the debate shows the president besting Romney by a 25-point margin. That means that if Romney outperforms Obama, it will be a much bigger shock to the electorate than the other way around.

Opinion: The mistakes candidates make in debates

Seeing the Democratic Cicero even slightly shaken by the Republican challenger could cause the public to rethink the way they conceptualize both men. That's happened before. In 1980, Reagan's debate performance convinced a broadly hostile audience that he wasn't a raging, radical conservative but actually a placid, funny guy. That debate wasn't as decisive to the end result as the bad economy or the Iranian hostage crisis. But it did help shift public sentiment.

So what should Romney do to win? Advice is coming in from all sides -- from going on the attack to articulating a positive vision. The one suggestion he should definitely ignore is from Gingrich, who says the nominee must use humor. Given Romney's record for turning a joke into a global laughingstock, it would be better if he just stuck to the facts.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT