Presidential debates, it is generally agreed, have only really mattered – by perhaps changing the outcome of a race – once or twice in our history. This might be one of those years. Obama and Romney each have 40-some percent of voters “definitely” in their respective corners, and various polls say anywhere from 9 to 15 percent of voters haven’t made up their minds yet or could be persuaded to change them. The election could hinge on the people who finally decide after watching the debates.
Whether they will watch for substance or style is anybody’s guess, and “a little of both” is probably the right answer.
Neither candidate is likely to reveal anything new or startling in Wednesday’s debate. They each have distinctly different approaches to the relationship of government and citizen, and it seems likely most voters – even the undecided ones – are aware of the differences. The job for each of them is to say a memorable line or two, avoid saying anything stupid, and present a coherent argument and look and sound presidential doing it.
Romney, as the challenger, is the one with the most to win and the most to lose. Like Ronald Reagan, he suffers from an instinctive lack of trust in voters’ minds, even some of the ones who are leaning toward him. Also like Reagan, he can instill that trust by a solid performance. Or he can destroy it altogether with a gaffe or two.
The reason we should not pass up the debates is that they are the only times in this interminable campaign when we can see the two candidates together, and the importance of that cannot be overstated. In today’s polarized political world, voters tend to just pay attention to voices that agree with their own views. Distortions can take hold, and the candidates can get away with saying just about anything.
Watching them together will at least make us – and the candidates – pay a little more attention to actually provable statements. Who knows, the facts may even end up mattering.