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
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 2122 GMT (0522 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1608 GMT (0008 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 13, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT