Rethinking the debate’s importance

In most cases debates have little effect on US presidential elections, but this time it could be different.

I think I might have made a mistake.

I’ve just spent an entire week telling my viewers that historically US presidential debates don’t matter all that much.

I put so much emphasis on this fact, partly because I was quite frankly sick of all the domestic media hype, countdown clocks and talk of the “expectation game”.

It seemed silly, because there are plenty of studies that show that unless it is an exceptionally close race, the two candidates talking for 90 minutes, doesn’t usually change the dynamic.

I’m beginning to wonder if I was wrong.

President Barack Obama has broken the rules before. He has been a precedent setting politician and he may have done it again after the first television debate of 2012.

I just left the president’s campaign event in Denver, Colorado, where I talked to some of his supporters.

Let me point out: I lost feeling in my feet about five minutes in due to sharp drop in the temperature overnight.

But the people I was talking with had been standing in the bitter cold for hours – just to hear the president speak for 20 or so minutes.

Knowing that, you could probably assume these are some of the president’s biggest fans. But I couldn’t find anyone who thought he won Wednesday’s debate.

Excuses made

I heard a lot of people make excuses, and even repeat the talking points that the president’s surrogates had spewed on TV about a “new” Romney.

I talked to one woman who said she was afraid that one performance might have cost Mr Obama the election. If your most ardent supporters feel that way you just know you had a bad night.

One Obama surrogate told me after the debate that it’s just one of three. Again, if your friends who are there simply to sing your praises are promoting your performance by saying that he’ll get another shot, that’s not a good sign.

So let’s go back to my original premise that debates don’t usually decide the outcome of elections. That is true in most cases, but I’m beginning to wonder if this time could be different.

The Obama campaign has been putting a lot of emphasis on getting people to the polls early. His supporters are less likely to be excited to do that now.

The president has a fairly long wait until he gets another shot at his opponent, almost two weeks. Millions of votes could be cast between now and then.

Still, I’m not sure that his performance was so bad that anyone is going to run right out and vote against him just because the president failed to make “good eye contact” or he “looked down too much”. [The television commentators have made those points repeatedly].

Campaign momentum

The bigger concern for the president has to be what this does to his campaign’s momentum.

Obama was pulling away in the polls after the Democratic National Convention, but that lead was already beginning to shrink in the days leading up to Wednesday’s debate.

If the outcome of that debate brings the two men to a virtual tie in the polls, that is a dangerous place for an incumbent to be this close to election day.

That’s what I’ll be thinking about when we arrive at the next event in Madison, Wisconsin.

The president will take the stage knowing his supporters are a bit downbeat, and that the consultants and pundits seem flabbergasted [not a word I use often, but apt in this case].

The US mainstream media has declared Obama the across the board the loser of the first debate.

What will the president do with that and this depressed atmosphere that seems to be permeating his campaign?

He’s been down before in this unlikely political career of his, but how he responds this time will ultimately determine if I was wrong, when I said debates don’t usually matter.

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