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Do The Next Two Debates Really Matter?

Conventional wisdom always tries to sound timeless, but it’s almost always a herd reaction to events. “Debates don’t matter,” was the old conventional wisdom, and it was uttered very wisely by sages of all stripes. Now, suddenly, debates do matter, and it’s hard to find a pundit who disagrees with wisdom so ancient and traditional.

The Romney surge (a surge is a bounce that lasts more than week) following the first presidential debate has changed the shape of the race. President Obama still looks positioned to eke out an electoral college victory, but we’ve had several days now in which national polling shows Governor Romney with a narrow (and within the margin of error) lead. In Florida, Virginia, Colorado and Ohio (the four most critical swing states for both camps), the race is too close to call.

As political operatives lubricate their spin machines for the next two presidential debates, some fear and others hope that the next two debates could have an equally dramatic effect on the polls. That seems unlikely. It’s not just that first impressions often count more than subsequent ones, and it has nothing to do with the “laws” that political scientists are always trying to find that supposedly govern elections and allow us to predict their outcome months in advance. It’s about the nature of this particular contest and the challenges that the two candidates face.

This election is a lot like the election of 2004. Then as now, a majority of voters didn’t feel married to the incumbent. Things weren’t going so swimmingly then, and aren’t now, that the incumbent could convincingly argue that he should get another four years to continue the good work. Voters were ready to make a change, but they weren’t sure whether the other guy could do the job.

Governor Romney did what Senator Kerry failed to do: he established himself in the minds of many voters as a credible alternative to a president they were ready to dump. That changed the dynamics of the race. Voting for Romney — at this moment in the race, anyway — now looks like a safe thing to do. The Democrats, the MSM and the TV ads kept saying that he was a loon and a goon, but on TV he seemed like a reasonably competent and OK guy. Voters who don’t like the president but aren’t hard core Republicans now feel they have somewhere to go.

Meanwhile, the advance word from the Obama camp is that the President is promising to be more “aggressive” in the next two debates. ‘Energetic’ might have been a better choice of words; the President’s remoteness, his appearing to zone out when Romney was speaking and the lack of excitement and apparent commitment clearly made him look less presidential and cost him dearly in the minds of many voters. But while voters want some signs that the President is bringing all he has to the big game, President Obama will hurt his cause rather than help it if he climbs down off the mountain of incumbency to wrestle with Governor Romney in the mud. Vice President Biden was aggressive, but if he had been running for president his snorting and chuckling would have hurt him much worse than they did.

Americans want presidential presidents, not smirking or snorting or ‘aggressive’ ones. If the moral the White House is drawing from the debates so far is that voters are longing for an aggressive and confrontational chief executive, then President Obama could damage himself Tuesday night.

All this doesn’t mean that Governor Romney can start working up the guest list for his Inaugural Ball. But it does mean that barring a seriously flawed performance on his part or a superhuman one on the part of President Obama, the next two debates are unlikely to have the same kind of dramatic effect on the race that the first one did.

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