The race for the Oval Office is about to enter the homestretch, as President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney face off in their first head-to-head televised debate tomorrow night.
At 9 p.m., the two men will finally get a chance to verbally spar with one another for the first time this election cycle, in front an audience of hundreds in attendance at the University of Denver, while millions watching at home. The debate will be broadcasted on all the major network stations and cable news networks, and will also be streamed online.
The event couldn’t come at a more opportune time for both candidates, as the gap between the two remains quite narrow in the polls. According to a nationwide poll released today by Rasmussen Reports, Obama leads Romney by merely one percentage point, with 48 percent of voter support over Romney’s 47 percent.
While these numbers have remained fairly constant throughout the election so far, tomorrow’s debate will be a “coming out” party of sorts to many Americans who have not followed the campaign cycle to this point. The national spotlight of televised debates often draws in an audience who otherwise remain uncertain of where Obama and Romney stand on the issues voters care about.
“Debates don’t provide a good forum to for candidates to provide new information,” said John Clark, the head of the WMU political science department. “But they are often times useful to provide old information to a new audience.”
This should again prove true when the two candidates face off tomorrow night. The focus of the debate, which will be moderated by PBS’ NewsHour host Jim Leher, will be entirely on domestic issues. Fixing the nation’s ailing unemployment rate has been the rallying cry for both candidates, though their individual views have differed greatly on how to accomplish that goal.
“I would expect most everything they talk about they’re going to try and tie in, in some way or another, with jobs,” Clark said. “Each side is going to talk about how their policies are going promote job growth, while the other sides policies are not.”
Another dynamic at play coming into tomorrow’s debate is the fierce battle over crucial swing states like Florida, Virginia and Ohio, whose electoral votes are likely to decide the winner come November. While Obama currently leads in polls in most battleground states, both the President and Romney will likely appeal to those voters while giving their answers at the debate, Clark said.
“Their basic answer will be general, but when they give an example, the example will be, ‘for instance, if my policy gets passed, that will create x million jobs across the country, but especially in Florida, or in Ohio, or in Virginia,’” Clark said.
Just as Obama and Romney appear to be deadlocked for the hearts and minds of voters, Clark predicts that both men will be well matched throughout the debate circuit. Both have had impressive performances in past debates, Clark said.
Romney in particular could benefit from a strong showing tomorrow night, the professor added. The former Massachusetts governor and corporate mogul has been criticized for failing to connect with the middle class. This scrutiny has intensified in recent weeks after the Republican’s statements lambasting Americans who don’t pay federal income tax during a private fundraiser last month.
“During the Republican nomination contest, there were an awful lot of debates,” Clark said. “In virtually all of those, [Romney] did pretty well. It’s harder to score a debate with eight candidates, or six candidates, or even four candidates, but I don’t recall, in any of those contests, where he came out the loser.”
The Democratic incumbent has drawn similar criticism to Romney in the past for his own troubles connecting to middle class voters, so the upcoming debate could help him score votes with this segment of voters as well, Clark said.
Whether or not Wednesday’s debate or the ones to follow will significantly shift voters remains to be seen. In the past elections, though, the candidate’s performance has played a role in whose box voters check when they head to the ballots.
The oft-cited example of this is the Nixon-Kennedy debates during the 1960 election. Despite the fact that most people who tuned in over the radio said that Richard Nixon won the debate, those who watched on TV overwhelming selected the younger and more charismatic John F. Kennedy, which helped propel him to the White House on Election Day.
In recent years, though, candidates actions during the debate can actually harm their chances of reaching the Oval Office, Clark said. In 1992, George H.W. Bush was caught checking his watch on camera during one his debates against Bill Clinton, which led to the criticism from viewers. Eight years later, Al Gore faced similar ire for sighing and rolling his eyes during a debate with Bush’s son, George W. Bush.
“Sometimes, it’s those kinds of things, not even the in answers themselves but just in the ways the candidates present themselves, that can have an impact on how they are perceived,” Clark said.
As for tomorrow night, Clark said that, no matter who wins or loses, or which facets the media scrutinizes or analyzes, the event will provide an excellent insight for potential voters on how Obama and Romney view the future of America.
“I don’t think that either of them is going to have problems. They’re both pretty good at this stuff, or at least they have been in the past,” Clark said. “Hopefully that means there will be lots of information transmitted to voters and help people make up their minds if they haven’t already.”