GOP aims to up the ante in 2012 contest
President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will speak directly to voters this week in the first televised debate of the 2012 campaign.
They could well set the tone for its final weeks.
“These debates are like chess pieces — because you have to think where the pieces are going to fall,” said Vincent Thompson, founder and principal of Thompson Mediaman Communications.
Like much of the nation, many Philadelphians will be tuned into the 9 p.m. debate on Wednesday in Denver, Colo. A number of watch parties have been scheduled across the city.
The topic, a hot one in this election, is domestic policy. It is the first time that Obama and Romney have faced off against one another — they will debate each other in two other events, on Oct. 11 and 16, where the topic will be twofold: domestic and foreign policy. The final debate is in a town hall setting.
This week’s debate comes as the campaign enters its final phase — just 34 days remain until Nov. 6. That means careful preparation for the candidates battling for the votes of a relatively small number of voters.
An extremely polarized electorate means that most people have already made up their minds.
“If you’re a solid Democrat, you’ve already figured out who you’re voting for. If you’re a solid Republican, you’ve already figured out who you’re voting for,” What these debates are always meant to do is change the undecided,” Thompson said.
That means both candidates will have to make their arguments to undecided voters — just 7 to 9 percent of voters. With Obama leading in most national polls, Romney will have to work harder than Obama, said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.
“Romney needs to make something happen,” he said. “All Obama has to do is be presidential.”
The most recent Real Clear Politics composite poll, which averages a number of major national polls, gave Obama a lead of almost four points on Monday. It showed the president 3.7 points ahead of Romney, with 49 percent of voters saying they’d choose him for a second term, compared to 45.3 percent of voters who said they preferred Romney.
Though Obama’s lead has varied widely, he has been polling ahead of Romney since Oct. 11, 2011, with the exception of a few days in early September.
Longtime local political consultant Maurice Floyd said the Romney’s “47 percent” remark has virtually sealed Obama’s re-election, and that the debates are unlikely to change that.
“I think that’s a major, major problem for him,” he said. “It characterized people and directly talks about the middle class, about seniors, about a number of people — in the way that the [Obama campaign] defined him, coming from his own lips. That had a huge impact on voters.”
Perhaps in an attempt to steer conversation away from that, Republicans in particular have emphasized the importance of the debates.
“They are doing something I have not seen done before,” Madonna said. “Instead of lowering expectations, they are raising them. Normally, you don’t hear that. They usually lower expectations.”
That puts a heavier burden on Romney.
“You’ve got to be careful. What if he doesn’t deliver?” Madonna said.
Debates have a storied history in American political folklore — Kennedy versus Nixon is perhaps the most important modern example — but their relevance may be waning, said Madonna, pointing to statistics that show fewer people tuning in.
“There is not a lot of evidence, despite all the hype, that debates have proved transformative,” he said, pointing out that in 1960, during the Kennedy/Nixon debate, 60 percent of the country was watching it on television. By comparison, more recent debates tend to draw 25 percent or less.
Nevertheless, they remain crucial because they are widely covered by the media, Thompson added.
“They’re story changers in the election because the press follows them and will harp on every word for days afterward,” he said.
And, added Floyd, the importance of this election means that it will be watched — especially by African Americans.
“It will be almost like a football game,” he laughed. “”Let’s not forget that this is the first African American running for re-election in a major debate, so in the African-American community it’s going to be watched very heavily.”