Will the Debates Matter?

If you live here in Denver, Colorado it will. They are shutting down our main freeway, I25 for five hours to accommodate the debate. Let the Carpocalypse begin!

In all seriousness, I do think the debates can change the fortunes of the candidates, particularly for Mitt Romney. Romney has had a few brutal weeks. He gambled on Paul Ryan (and the idea that seniors wouldn’t be scared away by Medicare cuts) and lost, failed to get a post-convention bounce, was hammered by Obama and Clinton at the DNC, and has made several unforced errors, such as the now infamous 47% comments.

For all of this he has been on the receiving end of conservative rage. Peggy Noonan, David Brooks, Joe Scarborough, the Wall Street Journal Editorials, and many others have expressed their dismay. That’s the bad news for Romney. The good news is there’s probably no place to go but up. Now, what could happen to turn this around for Romney?

First, unforced errors, although unlikely, could come from Barack Obama’s camp. Obama could be getting overconfident. His team has done a great job framing the Mitt Romney they want independent voters to see. Obama knows that blue collar workers in Ohio and Michigan hate outsourcing more than anything (he’s right: I grew up in Rust Belt Ohio) and has playing his hand with respect that. He feels like Romney is on the ropes but one slip of the tongue about redistribution or some anti-business sentiment and the conservative media machine will pounce, enraging Romney supporters (or Obama haters).

Second, Romney could always forget about the far right and just be himself. He could embrace his record as governor like he should have in the first place. He could showcase the fact that he was the first governor in American history to secure universal healthcare for his state. He could remind everyone how he worked with Democrats and progressives to get things done. He could, as David Brooks advocates, lay out three or four specific things he will fix as president and say, “You don’t have to love me, but this is what I’ll do for you.” That might be enough. There is a craving for this kind of thing: only the mindless and hollow ideology of far right discounts compromise as a vice.

The debates could be where either of these things happens, and theyt could in fact alter the race. That being said, I must acknowledge that these two events are very unlikely. The two candidates are chess players, and very risk averse ones at that. Obama will play it safe, not too aggressive or passive. Romney may come out swinging, but will open himself up to counter attacks from the president. He has been hurt badly by the president and his own mistakes, and may not feel confident enough to try an aggressive approach.

My prediction is that the relatively stagnant polls (up until two weeks ago) will continue, and the debates will be forgotten quickly. But anything can happen.

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