Two Audiences, Two Unelectable Candidates and One Much-Hyped Debate

Matthew Dowd

By Matthew Dowd

Oct 2, 2012 3:52pm

As I watched my hometown Detroit Tigers clinch their division last night (Awesome!), I noticed the two teams with different colored Sox were not making the playoffs and basically ending a very disappointing season. The Chicago White Sox (President Obama’s team) and the Boston Red Sox (Gov. Mitt Romney’s team) were ending their year not meeting expectations and underperforming. The hometown teams seem to perfectly represent two unelectable candidates running against each other, though in this case they are the only teams in the playoffs, so one will win.

Obama is handicapped by an anemic economy and many in the country question his leadership. Nearly two-thirds of voters think the country is on the wrong track, according to the polls. Romney is not well-liked by voters, doesn’t connect well, and people don’t think he understands their lives or their problems.

So as each candidate faces a pivotal moment at the presidential debate on Wednesday in Denver, how will success by judged? Each campaign has tried to set expectations on this debate, though in the end, each performance will be judged more on style than on substance by the two key audiences he needs to influence. The manners of the man will matter more than the banners of his plans.

Audience No. 1 is made up of the independent voters who are either still undecided (Really? I have stood in line behind folks like you at restaurants and it does get frustrating), or softly affiliated with Obama.  At this point, Romney not only needs to convince undecided voters, he also must move voters from Obama to himself — a more difficult task.

Romney is positioned well to meet or exceed expectations of this audience. All polling, by nearly 2-to-1 ratios, finds that voters think Obama will win the debates. This sets things up well for Romney, who if he just shows up, is forceful and compassionate, strings some coherent sentences together and stands up to Obama, will exceed expectations and move some numbers initially among voters. The bar isn’t very high for him with independents. Obama, on the other hand, is already presumed to be the winner by this audience, and is unlikely to meet expectations.

Audience No. 2 is a more difficult one for Romney. This audience is made up of the media, the press, and the various and many pundits who will comment and analyze the debate (and yes, yours truly is one of them). This audience believes Romney needs to have a game-changing moment or two that dramatically alters the contours of this race. This audience believes the pressure is on Romney and he needs to win overwhelmingly to have a chance in a race in which he lags behind in battleground states.

This is not an impossible task, but it is much more difficult than his situation with Audience No. 1. Obama, on the other hand, has an easier job here because the media believe he is ahead, and that as long as he doesn’t offend folks with his style or manner, the debate could be the beginning of him putting the race away. However, if he does do something stylistically off, the media will pounce. This is the best case scenario for Romney.

My expectation is that Romney will do reasonably well with Audience No. 1 (independent voters) and move some polling to his advantage at least initially. But after a few days, if he doesn’t meet the bar of Audience No. 2, the multiplier effect of the media conversation will tamp down any movement.  All of this is just a guess, and one of the great things about debates is that there still is some mystery and opportunity for an unexpected result.

And finally my last piece of advice to the candidates and campaigns is the same advice I give my children: Tell the truth, respect others, have some fun, enjoy the moment, the sun rises tomorrow no matter what happens today, and have faith that as long as you follow your gut, you know it will turn out for the best.

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