Pre-game: Debate prep and punditry
September 24th, 2012
01:38 PM ET
2 years ago

Pre-game: Debate prep and punditry

(CNN) – With nine days until the first presidential debate and candidates vying for the prized bloc of undecided voters, surrogates are playing a game of lowering expectations over which candidate holds the advantage going into the face offs.

However, according to a CNN/ORC International poll taken just after the Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama has a 25 point 59%-34% advantage among likely voters over Republican nominee Mitt Romney when asked which candidate is more likely to win the debates.

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"Then Sen. Obama had the same edge over Sen. John McCain when voters were asked four years ago who would win the 2008 debates," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "Going back even further in the history books, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore were all seen as more likely to win their debates."

While the likely voters think President Barack Obama will have an advantage in the three presidential debates, according to the survey, his campaign surrogates disagree. They cite Romney's primary experience of many debates allowing the opposing candidate the time to hone his debating ability. Lowering the expectations for their guy.

Romney's supporters, of course, see a different picture – in fact, that of David v. Goliath. Obama is considered a very strong debater, they remind, and they downplay Romney's experience. Lowering the expectations for their guy.

No one doubts the debates will be key however. And the lowering of expectations, as the logic goes, may improve the chances for a perceived good performance after each debate. In fact, it's possible for a candidate to "win" the debate but actually "lose" the debate because they weren't good enough. So setting the bar low is important for both sides.

In a CNN/ORC poll taken August 7 and 8, 57% of likely voters say the debates are very important in determining their vote in November while 26% say the candidates' performances are somewhat important and only 15% saying the debates do not matter at all.

Beginning next Wednesday President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney will appear for the first time on the same stage in a nationally televised debate.

The debates are scheduled to be held on October 3 in Denver, Colorado, October 16, in Hempstead, New York, and October 22 in Boca Raton, Florida. CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley, anchor of "State of the Union," will moderate the October 16 debate. Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee, face off on October 11 in Danville, Kentucky.

Republican and Democrats jostled over the presidential debate prospects this last weekend.

Obama senior adviser Robert Gibbs said Sunday Romney has an advantage leading into October's contests given the GOP challenger's more recent exposure to the debate stage during the hotly contested Republican primaries.

"Mitt Romney I think has an advantage, because he's been through 20 of these debates in the primaries over the last year," Gibbs said on Fox News. "He even bragged that he was declared the winner in 16 of those debates. So I think, in that sense, having been through this much more recently than President Obama, I think he starts with an advantage."

But Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham also told CNN's Candy Crowley Sunday that as the weeks wind down to November he expects concerns about the economy will transcend any gaffes or questions about Romney's financial portfolio.

"During the debate, we're going to focus on four years of Barack Obama, not everything just about what Mitt Romney may have said or put his dog on the car," Graham added, referring to those who have made noise about Romney taking a family trip in 1983 with his dog in a cage strapped to the top of his car.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres said GOP nominee Mitt Romney must use the debates to "score points" on the economy, the No. 1 concern of voters.

"The most important thing that Mitt Romney can do is give people confidence that he knows how to fix this economy," Ayres told CNN's Candy Crowley on "State of the Union." "They don't believe (President Barack) Obama has or can, but they are not yet persuaded that Mitt Romney can either. That's the most important thing to come out of your debate."

Conservative writer Ann Coulter said on ABC Sunday that the debates are important because voters will see an "unfiltered" Romney, which she says will make all the difference in undecided voters.

Though surrogates claim lower expectations for Romney, the former governor must also do damage control over several consecutive weeks of a campaign struggling with gaffes.

Former President Bill Clinton said last Thursday Romney's "47%" comment will place a "heavier burden" on the Republican challenger in debates to further explain the potentially damaging comments.

Romney made the controversial comments at a private fund-raiser in Florida in May caught on a secretly recorded video telling high-dollar donors that nearly half of Americans would automatically not vote for him because they are dependent on the government and consider themselves "victims."

Though he has conceded his comments lacked elegance, Romney was quick to double-down on the remarks, standing by the crux of his argument suggesting an issue of government dependency in the United States.

Following an uproar of criticism from Democrats and a wave of wary Republicans questioning the GOP standard bearer's campaign, Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus dismissed the handwringing, insisting Romney had a good week and was in no need of a turnaround.

"We had a good week last week, I think in retrospect, in that we were able to frame up the debate last week in the sense of, what future do we want, and do you want, out there for your kids and grandkids. And clearly, things are not going well in this country," Priebus said on ABC's "This Week."

But how confident are the candidates in matching their opponent in the fleeting days of September before they match up?

Romney has been preparing for the debates intermittently throughout the campaign trail, a schedule Obama traveling press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Air Force One marks more preparation for debate "than any candidate in modern history."

"They've made clear that his performing well is a make-or-break piece for their campaign," Psaki said of the Romney team's efforts attempting to raise the stakes for Romney.

Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has also been pausing from the campaign trail to prepare for his one chance to spar with Vice President Joe Biden following the first presidential debate.

As for Obama, senior campaign adviser David Axelrod said last weekend the incumbent needs to be more concise considering his lack of practice delivering the quick, sharp banter necessary on the debate stage.

"He's got to speak shorter, that's all," Axelrod told Reuters. "He just hasn't had to do that for the last four years, so that's a part of the discipline of preparing for these debates."

Notwithstanding the campaign rhetoric, polling in battleground states among likely voters underscores Romney's need to shine in the debates in order to not only carry all of the states Sen. John McCain did in the 2008 elections but also win about a half dozen more in order to take office in January 2013.

Obama campaign officials said Saturday it is not the national polls but the swing state polls that matter.

"We're either tied or in the lead in every battleground state 45 days out," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told reporters in Milwaukee. "I think you will see a tightening in the national polls going forward. What I care way more about is Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Wisconsin, etc. In those states, I feel our pathways to victory are there. There are two different campaigns, one in the battlegrounds and one everywhere else. That's why the national polls aren't relevant to this campaign."

The CNN poll was conducted by ORC International, from Sept. 7-9, with 1,022 adults nationwide, including 875 registered voters and 709 likely voters, questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points, with a sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for likely voters.

CNN's Dana Davidsen and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.


Filed under: 2012 • Mitt Romney • President Obama • Presidential Debate
soundoff (80 Responses)
  1. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    The best advice anyone can give Romney during the debates is to think before he opens his mouth not unless he's taking a deep breath. President Obama undoubtedly has the ability to answer a question and because he listens and retains everything said nothing is going to get by him without an explanation. Romney's answers better be percise and correct.

    September 24, 2012 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  2. Beverly - NYC

    As long as Mitt stands upright, doesn't throw up on his shoes, Limbaugh & Hannity will say that their guy won, provided he doesn't have to walk back too much of what he says. I watched the Republican Primare debates, frankly given his debate opponents , Governor Oops, Mr. 999, & The Sweatervest, he didn't have to try very hard with those misfits did he. President Obama will own him from the first debate.

    September 24, 2012 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  3. TheVoice2

    Obama will wipe the floor with Mitt Phony. Mitt has no idea how to run this country. Most likely this election will be over come October 4th.

    September 24, 2012 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  4. AnnsTheMan!

    My advice to Mitt – answer 'why' and 'how', not just 'what' and 'who'.. the voters aren't feeling you because you keep telling us 'what' you'll do, and 'who' with, but not 'how' you'll do it, or 'why' we should let you. That puts people off, and makes you seem 2-D. - My advice to our president – humility with purpose. Don't just say "I regret not doing this" and just looking crestfallen.. Say "I regret that, and can say yes, I could have done better. Here's how..." in a positive voice and posture.

    September 24, 2012 02:19 pm at 2:19 pm |
  5. 2020

    I tracked and observed everything about Romney, the more I read and watched him, I don't like what I see.

    The world is complicated enough, we don't need a president whose tax return is fussy, paid 14% if tax when I paid 30%.

    I am one of the 47% he is talking about, and he doesn't care!!!

    I worked all my life, never collect unemployment. Now retired, enjoy my grand kids, with my social security, and medicane. But, Romney turned his back on Obamacare which he instituted. That irks me.

    After all the toss and turns, now, I know I made an informed and rational decision. Romney, No way. I cannot support you.

    The President though not perfect, has much more to offer. He is a good guard for the country, I truly believe.

    September 24, 2012 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  6. i'm confused

    Our national deficit is the most clear & present danger to the continuity of our nation! The republican party had their opportunity in the summer of 2011 to reach an agreement that would have addressed the deficit crisis, reformed our tax code and by doing both of those things WOULD HAVE / SHOULD HAVE / COULD HAVE removed much of the fiscal uncertainty that has placed business of all sizes in a holding pattern on hiring for most of the last two years.... So what did the gop do? They adopted a stance based on ideological extremism, ignorance, and blind devotion to a man named Grover Norquist!!!!! Ever since the gop took control of the House of Representatives in 2010, members of the republican party across our entire federal government have demonstrated by very specific actions not just a willingness to erode confidence in the integrity of our nation but a STRONG DESIRE TO DO JUST THAT!!!!!!!

    September 24, 2012 02:23 pm at 2:23 pm |
  7. DL

    There are reports that Mitt is spending alot of time with mock debates trying to get himself prepared to live up to his lies. Of course, he will do what he always does, answer the question by taking any position that benefits him, and a segment of our population will think he's brilliant and honest. Face it, this guy hasn't been honest about anything except tax cuts for the wealthy and adding 5 trillion more to the debt the minute he's elected.

    September 24, 2012 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  8. B.

    It really does not matter much what Romney says, he can not get away from himself as the truth about his -real feelings about people always comes through the prewritten formula Republican talking points.

    The man does not really understand the basic People Concerns all Americans have, he has never had to deal with any of it himself. He admitted,to his Private Audience, what real distain he has for Half of the American people!

    He is not fit to be Commander and Chief of this country because he is Not about the People, it is all about him.

    September 24, 2012 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  9. Daniel

    Put Gary Johnson in the debate!!! I know it won't happen because if Johnson was on stage they might actually have to talk about real issues.

    September 24, 2012 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  10. curious

    This election is all about image going forward. Whoever comes across as most Presidential wins the debates.

    September 24, 2012 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  11. David

    I'm confused why people think Mitt is such a good manager given how he has run his campaign and the fact he has been running for president for 20 years. He wasn't such a great governor in MA. either. It seems to me that what he is good at is finding weak companies to loot or forcing employees making a living wage into subsistence.

    September 24, 2012 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  12. bob

    Romney should overlwhelming CRUSH Obama is all (3) debates. However, he MUST keep the focus squarely on Obama's failed record and failed policies. If he gets drawn into the class warfare discussions or meaningless social issues, he will be in trouble.

    September 24, 2012 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  13. ug

    Romney will do at the debates and obama will lie...

    September 24, 2012 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  14. Susan Withers

    The debates should include Jill Stein (Green) and Gary Johnson (Libertarian). They are on the ballot in most states. Don't we have a right to know what they have to say?

    September 24, 2012 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  15. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    I won't be surprise if Romney concedes by failing to show up. The guy has no clue whatsoever, he lacks integrity and credibility and he's simply unfit and unqualified to be POTUS. When you say in private that your job is not to worry about half the nation, then that alone should be the underlining factor why no one in their right mind should ever vote for this bigoted, racist fraudulent elitist.

    Obama/Biden 2012!

    September 24, 2012 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  16. Core republican Values

    "If at first you practice to deceive, what a tangled web you weave."

    This is Romney's problem. He's all tied up in knots trying to remember what Karl "The Ax Murderer" Rove told him to lie about.

    President Obama just has to tell the truth in a way that doesn't give the opposition a sound bite.

    September 24, 2012 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  17. maf

    Can't wait to see the "unfiltered Romney". We are likely to get more of the same 47% comments and see how Mitt really thinks about Americans and America!!!

    Should be good for some GOP implosion!

    September 24, 2012 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  18. texcal68

    Daniel, why do people like you keep supporting candidates (Gary Johnson and Ron Paul) that can't win?

    September 24, 2012 02:42 pm at 2:42 pm |
  19. John

    Bill Frist, Senate GOP Leader during Bush years in this issue of the Week "I absolutely believe that people without health insurance do not live as long as those with insurance"......some people in the GOP are willing to address reality,, but unfortunately very few.

    September 24, 2012 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  20. SYED

    Mitt already has reached his highest rank as Governor ,He is not cream of the crop actually republican did not had any body better than him or they were feared that Obama will defeat any body any way. I cant wait to see Mitt filliping flopping in Debates and Obama need to show off more

    September 24, 2012 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  21. rosco

    Mr Obama should be hooked upto a lie detecter

    September 24, 2012 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  22. Ztom

    As a former swing voter, the biggest thing that pushed me into the Obama camp for this election was actually Clinton's speech. Even though the speech didn't come out of Obama's mouth, it was one of the first speeches – maybe the only one – where I wasn't talked down to.

    I have an education and really miss someone succinctly say this is who you should vote for and why. It was backed up with facts and figures that were all verifiable. When Obama's speech happened or Romney's or practically anyone else's it was based almost solely on playing to fears and/or dreams. Maybe they make you fired up or feel good, but in the end, an educated person tends to go back to logic and reason.

    I can't say I've been happy with everything that has happened over the last 3 years, but what Clinton did was explain the differences between GOP's and Dems' ideas. I can now say that I'm cautiously optimistic with how things are going. I think that the GOP is holding onto ideas that have proven not to work, and that the Dems are pointed in the right general direction.

    In 4 more years, I will once again look at the GOP. If they are still basing their campaigns on fear and continuing to tell us that they can make 2 + 2 equal 5, they still haven't learned.

    September 24, 2012 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  23. David

    Please let the debates proceed without audiences' applause, boos, and other cheering. What the USA public does not need is the perception of the debates to be clouded by hand-picked, choreographed audiences, or to have its time wasted by this behavior.

    September 24, 2012 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  24. JohnRJohnson

    Romney is going to deny everything that Obama says about his past statements and call the President a liar in this debate. He will do this in an effort to put the President on the defense and take focus away from whatever his own policy positions have been over the last 15 years. This is going to be an ugly debate because Romney will do everything he can to rattle the President. The very last thing Romney will want to do is provide ANY specifics about his plan to improve the economy. I also think that Romney will resort to esoteric economic jargon to sound like he's more of a business type that Obama. It won't matter if viewers don't understand what he's talking about. He's aiming at the dim bulbs anyway.

    September 24, 2012 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  25. Grinning Libber

    Mitt is going to be skewered with his flip flops.
    POTUS Obama by a mile.

    September 24, 2012 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
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