The first Presidential debate is still a few days away but it is not too early to write the New York Times review of the debate.
Spoiler alert: the Times will declare Obama the winner.
Maintaining form, the New York Times will hold the two candidates to different standards with Obama’s excursions from the truth dismissed as poetic while Romney will be swarmed by partisan “fact checkers.” Lead by the Times, the network news and legacy print media will simultaneously explain what Obama meant when he said “x” and accuse Romney of lying when he said “y.”
With that finished op-ed writers and other commentators will spend most of their time talking about the intangibles of the debate. There will be talk of tone and demeanor with at least one prominent writer declared that Obama “looked Presidential” while Romney came across as petty and partisan. This will inevitably lead to pretended hand-wringing over whether or not Romney is too beholden to bogey-men like the Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh, or some other specter deemed by the cocktail party crowd as “fringe.” Naturally, any course alteration by the candidates will amount to flip-flopping if done by Romney and nuance and evolution if done by Obama.
The mainstream media, led by the New York Times, has two goals to achieve concerning the debates. With the race appearing close in national polls (though political professionals are aware of the glaring warning sign of an incumbent who cannot reach 50 percent), the media will imbue the debates with added importance. To secure advantage for their candidate the media needs to both energize partisans and appeal to undecided voters.
The 2008 Obama victory was made possible by historic levels of enthusiasm that engaged and turned out record numbers of young voters and minority voters. The 2012 Obama campaign has a real passion problem. Whereas the 2008 mania swept up moderate and independent voters across demographic categories, 2012 fatigue is disengaging the young and allowing middle class and white voters to fixate on the economy.
Blatantly energizing the 2008 Obama coalition risks driving the 2012 undecided vote into Romney’s camp. Truth be told, there are not as many undecided voters as in years past; most folks have made up their minds on Obama. The remaining middle-of-the-roaders are easy to turn off.
Romney knows that if a voter has yet to make up their mind by this late date, that voter has already left the incumbent. As such, the undecided typically break decisively for the challenger. The undecided voter can however be swayed by impressions. If a candidate does not appear competent, if they appear too partisan, if the candidate seems mean or impolite to their opponent, the undecided voter can turn against him.
Thus, the media will do everything it can to advance the narrative that Obama is Presidential (whatever that means) while Romney was false and eager to kowtow to extreme (and scary) elements of Right. For his part, Romney, understanding that Republican voters are eager to vote against Obama, will risk right-wing ire by appealing directly to the few, squishy voters left in the middle.
In reality, expect the debates to be bland affairs with neither candidate daring to venture too far off-script. Both candidates will answer the questions they wish were asked with little attention paid to whatever was actually said. As I expect the moderators to lean left, this strategy holds some risk for Romney who must not appear to be ignoring the questioner.
Finally, the media will inflate the value of debates. Better for Obama to have people talking about the three debates than discussing the economy, falling income, rising gas prices, unemployment, and the collapse of the Middle-East.