Will tomorrow's debate have any effect on the upcoming election? Robert David Sullivan previews the contest between President Obama and Governor Romney in this special Web only feature:
The conventional wisdom is that this year’s three presidential debates, the first of which airs on October 3, are Mitt Romney’s best chance at a “game changer” that erases President Barack Obama’s small but persistent lead in the polls. “Romney’s bid to become the next president could come down to a few hours onstage on Wednesday night,” writes  Nancy Cook of the National Journal. “This whole race is going to turn upside down come Thursday morning,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Romney supporter, told CBS News  on Sunday, in remarks probably not cleared with the Romney campaign.
This kind of hype drives most political scientists crazy. They argue that there’s little evidence of presidential debates changing many voters’ minds, and the small number of undecided voters in this year’s campaign are unlikely to watch the debates  anyway. In the current issue of the Washington Monthly, John Sides of George Washington University argues  that “you can accurately predict where the race will stand after the debates by knowing the state of the race before the debates” and that the most praised debate performances—including John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Ronald Reagan in 1980—merely “nudged” the polls further in the direction they were already heading.
Still, the debates may have an effect even without causing sudden shifts in voter preference. Both major candidates promote debate-watching parties on their campaign Web sites, suggesting that they view the events as morale boosters for their supporters. A strong debate performance—and both sides will be able to find moments in the evening that constitute a “win”—can fire up the volunteers who actually work the phones and go door-to-door in search of persuadable voters. If strong supporters are energized by their candidate’s performance, they might send in contributions or go out to cast early votes. (In 19 states , including bellwether Ohio, any registered voter will already be able to make his or her choice by the morning after the debate, either in person or through a “no excuse needed” absentee ballot.) A strong performance may also lock in voters who were leaning toward one candidate but still had doubts; one theory is that Reagan’s confidence in debating Jimmy Carter in 1980 didn’t change minds as much as reassure voters who were already itching to vote for him.
If debates by themselves don’t change voter preferences, there’s still the matter of their affect on the “narrative” of the campaign. The Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza, a pretty good stand-in for the pundit class as a whole, has mostly come around to the John Sides way of thinking, but he still writes  that “A mediocre or poor showing will reinforce the idea that Romney is a struggling candidate.” (Is that a threat or a promise?) In turn, this kind of verdict may determine the long-term reputation of its participants. It’s a matter of dispute whether the four Kennedy-Nixon debates were actually a significant factor in Richard Nixon’s defeat in 1960. But the oft-told story, not backed up by much evidence, of how Nixon’s sweaty brow and five o’clock shadow doomed his campaign might have had a more deleterious affect on his unsuccessful race for governor of California in 1962. It took the invention of the “New Nixon,” and a refusal to debate, to send him to the White House in 1968.
And even though Obama can’t run again and Romney’s not likely to if he loses this time, any “gaffes” in this year’s debate could be utilized against each man’s political party, perhaps beyond the current campaign. We’ve already seen statements by the candidates—the “you didn’t build that ” syntax slip-up by Obama and the secretly recorded “47 percent ” remarks by Romney—used in attacks against Democrats and Republicans. It would not be surprising if something Obama or Romney says on Wednesday ends up in campaign commercials for congressional candidates, as an attempt to link opponents to the less popular aspects of their parties.
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