Previewing and live-blogging the first presidential debate

By on September 29, 2012

Jim Lehrer of PBS moderates the first debate between President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney. The debate will focus on domestic policy and be divided into six 15-minute segments decided by Lehrer. The candidates will have two minutes to respond to each question with the remaining time allotted for discussion. The debate is sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Wednesday

4:56 p.m. – Sam Wang argues that the debates do matter, but not in the way you’d expect:

The Presidential outcome is only one measure of the debates’ effectiveness. As I have shown, downticket Senate races this year have tracked Presidential preference closely. The same is likely to be true of House races. These linkages are driven in part by partisan voter intensity. If one side’s intensity fades or surges, it will affect races at all levels on the ticket. The Obama-Romney debate may well influence the shape of the Congress that the President will face in January.

2:09 p.m. – David Gergen notes that while conventional wisdom suggests President Obama “can simply go for caution” in tonight’s debate, he argues the president “ought to be pressing for a victory, too.”

“In some polls over recent weeks, especially from key states, the president has now opened up a second possible path to re-election. For a long time, his campaign advisers have assumed that he would win but that his margin of victory would be narrow — less than three points. Even now, his advisers — even as they are quietly confident about the ultimate outcome — are running scared, assuming the race will likely close significantly in the final weeks.”

“But it is becoming apparent there is another possibility: Contrary to much conventional wisdom, Obama may actually be able to bust open this race, sweeping almost every state he won four years ago and rolling up a victory margin of perhaps five points or more.”

12:13 p.m. – A president’s temperament is his most important quality and it is the hardest to measure in the candidates who desire the office, writes John Dickerson. “It is at the heart of all the other key attributes. A president can’t ignore his critics unless he has a reliable sense of himself. He can’t make durable decisions unless he has strong values in which he roots them. The political game requires patience, and a willingness to ignore one’se motions. He can’t adapt unless he has the emotional maturity to accept the fallout.”

12:08 p.m. - Nate Silver finds “the first debate has normally helped the challenger”:

In the nine elections between 1976 and 2008, there were only two years when the incumbent-party candidate gained ground relative to the challenger; these cases were 1976, when Gerald R. Ford halved his six-point deficit with Jimmy Carter, and 1988, when George H.W. Bush moved just slightly further ahead of Michael Dukakis.

But on average, the challenging-party candidate gained a net of one and a half percentage points on the incumbent-party candidate.

However, the challenger’s gains have come mainly from undecided voters rather than from the incumbent himself.

10:22 a.m. - Tom Holbrook, indispensable as always, on the (limited) impact of debates over time.

10:11 a.m. – Stephanie Cutter pre-butts Romney: “He doesn’t have any specific plans to move us forward – only tired repeats that will take us back,” Obama’s deputy campaign manager writes in a 5-page memo. “So, Romney can use tonight’s debate to fill in those details and finally, for the first time, explain his proposals or readjust his positions. Or he can spend 90 minutes doing what he does best: attacking the president, distorting his own record, and avoiding any and all details on his plans for this country.” She then outlines “a few of the promises and contradictions we’ll likely hear tonight.”

10:08 a.m. – Jim Lehrer, in the 2012 paperback update to his memoir, “Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates” (writing before he had been selected for tonight)“I strongly recommend that it be standard practice to advise debate hall audiences in advance that they are expected to remain absolutely silent during a debate. They are invited guests, not participants. The moderator should remind the would-be cheerleaders and boobirds of the rules and enforce them when necessary. That has been the long-established practice in the fall general election debates. … There have been thirty-five nationally television presidential and vice presidential debates, counting [the] first one in 1960 [Kennedy-Nixon] and the last four in 2008.

6:19 a.m. – It is no coincidence that President Obama rehearsed for Wednesday’s debate in Nevada, a swing state that serves as a vivid reminder of the economic distress facing the country and threatening his hopes for re-election, Mark Landler reports.

Tuesday

8:39 p.m. - Eight clips of some of the most memorable presidential debate moments from the television era.

8:35 p.m. - A new Pew Research survey finds a substantial majority of voters plan to watch the debate: 62% say they are very likely to watch, another 21% say they are somewhat likely.

7:33 p.m. - What would you ask Mitt Romney? Andrew Sullivan: “What are the main differences between your domestic and foreign policies and those of the last Republican president, George W. Bush?”

7:13 p.m. - Tampa Bay Times Adam Smith’s 5 things to watch in the presidential debate.

5:12 p.m. - Josh Marshall expects it will be difficult for Romney to effectively attack Obama:

I think it’s quite possible Romney will have a good debate, given the nature of the expectations and the natural tendency for reporters to want a new story. But if the standard is his ability to fundamentally change the dynamic of the race that’s much more challenging. Because to do that he needs to be aggressive and in Obama’s face — the sort of stuff that’s just as likely to confirm the negative sense of him as arrogant, lacking empathy and contrived.

10:24 a.m. - What are each candidates’ vulnerabilities heading into the debate? First Read: “Heading into tomorrow night’s first presidential debate, both President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney have two big vulnerabilities that his opponent can exploit. And it’s safe to say that whichever candidate better addresses his vulnerabilities will have more success in Wednesday’s debate.”

“For Obama, one of his vulnerabilities is that he hasn’t fully described what a second term would look like… For Mitt Romney, a big vulnerability is that he hasn’t differentiated his economic policies from George W. Bush’s.”

9:00 a.m. – White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that President Obama didn’t prepare for the debate on the flight to Nevada because he was watching TV on Air Force One.

6:40 a.m. - Seth Masket previews Wednesday’s presidential debate:

My impression is that the debate is a higher-stakes event for Romney. He is trailing pretty significantly in the recent polls, and given how few people are still available to convert and that voting has already begun in some states, he doesn’t have a lot of time to change things around. And if he’s going to change things around, the first debate — which will likely have the largest audience of any political event this fall — is the time to do it. Obama, conversely, can win by not losing. So while both men are pretty careful and cautious debaters and not given to particularly rash outbursts, I’d guess that Romney will take a few chances on Wednesday and generally be the aggressor.

6:36 a.m. - Interesting number from The Hill’s new poll, conducted by Pulse Opinion Research: 85% of likely voters say they’ll probably tune in to Wednesday’s debate, while just 12% don’t plan on it.

Monday

4:09 p.m. - A new DNC video makes sure the expectations are high for Romney as he heads into this week’s presidential debate.

3:04 p.m. – After nearly six years of running for president, millions of dollars spent on ads, a massive political convention and hundreds of rallies in swing states such as Ohio, Florida, and New Hampshire, Mitt Romney’s bid to become the next president could come down to a few hours onstage on Wednesday night, observes the National Journal.

7:58 a.m. - Some have high expectations for Romney.

Michelle Cottle: “Romney may be a good debater. He may even be a great debater. But at this point his team has fumbled the expectations game to the point where the governor will need to perform at a level well above anything we’ve seen from him to date if he wants to pull off the “W.” Just holding his own against the president — often a challenger’s primary hurdle — won’t change the game, and, at this point, a game changer is what people are demanding.”

7:29 a.m. - Debates rarely have an effect. A 2008 Gallup study found that between 1960 and 2004, there were only two years where debates made a difference in actual votes, notes Miranda Green. Instead, the most common outcome of the presidential debates is a slight popularity bump… Data from the Gallup study also saw no direct correlation between the winner of each debate and the winner of the presidency. The 2004 Kerry vs. Bush debate was cited as an example. Kerry was considered the victor of all three showdowns, but still lost the election.

7:12 a.m. - Who watches the debates?

American Prospect: “When Kennedy and Nixon had their debates, it was little exaggeration to say that nearly the whole country stopped and watched. The three debates got Nielsen ratings of around 60, meaning that the debates were on in 60 percent of all homes that owned televisions. The third debate’s rating of 61 was higher than any since, though the one debate in 1980 between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan came close.”

“Since then, however, viewership has declined significantly. The nadir was reached in 2000, when the final debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore got a rating of only 25.9. Viewership rebounded somewhat in 2008, but the highest-rated debate that year–the second–got a rating of only 38.8. For comparison, the most watched broadcast of the year–the Super Bowl–gets ratings in the mid-50s. So while the 1960 debates got Super Bowl-type ratings, debates in recent years have gotten ratings about 20 points lower. That means that though today’s population is almost twice what it was in 1960, the total number of people watching isn’t much higher than it was then.”

Saturday

5:05 p.m. - Obama campaign activists and volunteers have organized a massive debate-night effort, hosting 3,200 debate watch parties across 50 states for next Wednesday’s debate, Politico reports.

2:07 p.m. - Romney is practicing his debate zingers – “Romney’s team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August. His strategy includes luring the president into appearing smug or evasive about his responsibility for the economy.”

1:15 p.m. – Scott Conroy believes that the expectations game is over-hyped:

According to Craig Shirley, who has authored two best-selling books on Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California did benefit in his lone 1980 debate against President Jimmy Carter because he was widely perceived at the time as either “a lightweight Hollywood actor” or a “nuclear-crazed cowboy.” Reagan’s competent performance went a long way toward changing those assessments just a week before Election Day, but that instance was the exception rather than the rule in recent presidential history.

Friday

9:38 p.m. - Can the debates save Mitt Romney? Will Waldman wouldn’t bet on it:

When Kennedy and Nixon had their debates, it was little exaggeration to say that nearly the whole country stopped and watched. The three debates got Nielsen ratings of around 60, meaning that the debates were on in 60 percent of all homes that owned televisions. The third debate’s rating of 61 was higher than any since, though the one debate in 1980 between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan came close.

Since then, however, viewership has declined significantly. The nadir was reached in 2000, when the final debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore got a rating of only 25.9. Viewership rebounded somewhat in 2008, but the highest-rated debate that year—the second—got a rating of only 38.8. For comparison, the most watched broadcast of the year—the Super Bowl—gets ratings in the mid-50s. So while the 1960 debates got Super Bowl-type ratings, debates in recent years have gotten ratings about 20 points lower. That means that though today’s population is almost twice what it was in 1960, the total number of people watching isn’t much higher than it was then.

Thurdsay

2:05 p.m. - In a memo sent to CNN, longtime Romney adviser Beth Myers sought to lower expectations heading into next Wednesday’s debate against President Obama.

Among the reasons: President Obama is “widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history” and this will be “the eighth one-on-one presidential debate of his political career. For Mitt Romney, it will be his first.” … She also suggested that Obama will “use his ample rhetorical gifts and debating experience to one end: attacking Mitt Romney.”

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