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. ST

    Romney is going to screw up. He is under pressure and the way I have observed him, he is not a person who can settle his mind, be calm and act as he is required to do.

    September 24, 2012 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  2. john

    Romney is in troubled in these debates!!
    He has been promising so many things to get the Republican nomination
    and the conservative base and he won't be able to back down....As a result, independents will see what his real policies are. He will start twisitng and turning in National TV...UNlike a stump...People from all across the Nation will be looking for detail and he does not have any..

    September 24, 2012 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  3. 90909090

    Rhetoric aside...its time to get rid of the TV Reality Celebrity of a President....Vote him OFF the show America!!!!

    September 24, 2012 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  4. rs

    It is very tempting to say that in Mr. Obama debating Mr. Romney he will be having a battle of wits with an un-armed opponent. Mr. Romney MUST be smarter than he is letting on, but with the way he is campaigning- lie upon lie upon gaffe, it would seem he has either been very lucky professionally to hide his utter lack of intellectual depth, or his ego, wealth and good fortune have simply gotten him through. It will be curious to watch the debates. Mr. Romney will simply have to take concrete stands on issues, and talk in terms of real policies- something he has simply refused to do to this point.

    September 24, 2012 03:26 pm at 3:26 pm |
  5. john

    ROmney on 60 minutes...
    "People can go to the ER if they need medical ....."
    Talk about fiscal responsibility...
    Option 1) have unisured people go to ER and bill Uncle Sam (Romney's way of dealing with Healthcare issue)
    Option 2) implement a plan to make healtcare afforable for all and have people contribute to their own healthcare...(Obamacare)

    nough said!!!

    September 24, 2012 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  6. HUH?

    Some of you feel the Media is casting votes. You're delusional. Grow up.

    September 24, 2012 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  7. Yolie Scott

    rosco, excuse me I believe it is romney that needs to be hooked up to a lie detector. If you don't believe that romney lies, then you live in a fairy tale world. Or you have been listening to a romney that know one knows about.

    September 24, 2012 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  8. freelance

    I am an independent. No matter what your party affiliation is, I expect Obama to be a much better debater than Romney.

    September 24, 2012 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  9. Bara-ck Hu-ssein Owe-bama is DONE

    You have lost MR PRESIDENT

    September 24, 2012 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  10. LM

    I've been following this campaign closely over several months. Mitt has been all over the map on ObamaCare...first he promises to repeal it....in a "Meet the Press" interview he want's to keep parts of it. Then in an address to Latino voters, he's going to scrap Obama Care. In a recent 60 Minutes interview, he says there are clinics and the ER for the uninsured.
    Then he releases his tax returns ....he paid at a higher rate when he said earlier he would never pay more than is legally due. I can't keep up with this guy. I don't think Mitt could debate his way out of a paper bag.

    September 24, 2012 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  11. Kwasi

    @ Noto Bo, as an Independent, i would dare say that in this election cycle, the Republicans have had more issues with veracity than democrats. from marathons to the welfare argument to the 47% spin to adjusting tax return info to meet the 14.1 threshold etc. The media in my opinion has been quite timid with both sides. both parties are getting away with answering the hard hitting questions.

    September 24, 2012 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  12. texcal68

    wolfpackbob - When any U.S. President inherits an economy in free fall he can't be blamed for that economic mess. It took thirty years of failed government policies to create the 2008 Meltdown and the deep recession that following; thus, blaming President Obama doesn't make sense. On average extreme economic contraction (i.e., The Great Contraction of 2009) take six or more years to recover from; therefore, blaming the President borders on the ridiculous.

    September 24, 2012 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  13. Randy

    "No one doubts the debates will be key however." I don't believe that's true. Few recent campaigns have been seen to hinge on the debates. I suppose they're key in the sense that Romney needs some way to turn things around because he has almost no chance of winning if the dynamics of the race don't change. But the debates don't seem very likely to accomplish that. He's, uh, well, not very appealing. There is a very good reason his 'positives' hit a ceiling and have never gone any higher for years and years.

    Maybe the debates are 'key' in the same sense as a quarterback stepping back to hurl a blind desperation pass from his own end zone with time running out. But we're also talking about a lousy quarterback.

    September 24, 2012 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  14. Vote 2012

    Mitten will continue to flip flop, goofy arrogant nervous laugh he does/got it from his mother, and he will look like a "scared hamster" lol

    September 24, 2012 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  15. Sniffit

    "All Romney has to do is remind the voters how bad we've suffered in the middle class these last few years"

    Oh, no doubt he'll try to lay it ALL at Obama's feet, no matter the facts regarding what policies and actions (OR LACK THEREOF) are actually to blame for the recession and hampering recovery, etc. The debate wil pretty much involve Mittens regurgitating programmed talking points and one-liners designed to appeal to the GOP/Teatroll base and, of course as a result, the GOP/Teatroll base will come away from the debates thinking Mittens scored all kinds of points. You know, thinkgs like pretending just because Obama was POTUS that deficits and debt primarily the result of the Bush tax cuts and the recession that started before he took office are all Obama's fault. Mittens will be a glorious pantomime of just what a vapid, self-serving politician spewing looks like reciting untruths, misinformation and smug little one-liners that have nothing to do with anything at a debate...and half the country will think he did great. They don't care what he says....as long as he says it in a condescending, disrespectful, chastising tone to the sitting POTUS. They've had it with "The Uppity One" and want him made an example of to teach "all of them" a lesson as to what "their" place is in this country.

    September 24, 2012 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  16. justrob

    Noto BO. Your comment was about as witty and insightful as your belief in Romney.

    September 24, 2012 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  17. dave

    Living in battleground Colorado...voting for Romney. Eat it Axelrod.

    September 24, 2012 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  18. Corvus

    Even the focus of the debates is a little off. Yes, our #1 concern is the economy, but our choices are a person who warned us in advance that it would take years to fix things, versus someone who has experience fixing them for businesses but won't tell us how.

    Personally, I don't have any doubt that one candidate is as knowledgeable and proficient on repairing the economy as the other. I think their plans are probably both sound when it comes to the numbers. My vote isn't being decided by who *can* fix the economy, but by who *will*. The choice is, do I put my confidence in someone who has had difficulty pushing policy so far because of leadership challenges, or do I put my confidence in someone who can't get support out of his own party, much less across the aisle?

    The economy is important to us because it needs repair to maintain our way of life. Having a good plan to keep it that way would be presumed of any president. What we need to know is, can a given candidate effectively LEAD those policies into action? This is what these debates need to reveal; the better leader.

    September 24, 2012 03:44 pm at 3:44 pm |
  19. rs

    wolfpackbob-
    It is OUR economy- and the Republicans have decided to sit on the sidelines passing anti-birth control and anti-abortion bills, and attempting (more than 30 times) to vote down the ACA instead of WORKING with the President to FIX OUR problems.

    September 24, 2012 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  20. maltytasker

    Romney said in an interview with Good Morning America that he predicts that Obama will lie in the Presidential debates, thereby forcing Romney to have to spend his time defending himself and not being able to talk about things he thinks are important. He started lowering the bar weeks ago.

    September 24, 2012 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  21. Observer91

    I get sick and tired of people constantly saying that this bad economy is Obama's fault. It isn't. The most fault that President Obama can have is from his inability to get the economy to grow fast enough, but then again fixing an economy destroyed by a certain other group of politicians isn't going to be fixed in a day. Very few of you have any patience, and if any of you think that Romney will make the economy grow faster than you need to get your head out of the sand. As for the debates, I'm sure Obama will win then considering the fact that Romney will probably gaffe a lot during them and knowingly lie in front of everyone. From an independent standpoint, its obvious what will happen on November 6.

    September 24, 2012 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
  22. peggy

    Mitt will "bully bash" the President and be buoyed by his apparent success. President Obama will be measured and respectful. Mitt will win the fight but the President will get the trophy.

    September 24, 2012 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
  23. Rick McDaniel

    They are both poor candidates. However, one wants to be dictator, and he has to go!

    September 24, 2012 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  24. 1termlimits

    According to the 60 minutes interview with Mr. Obama. The Middle East unrest, Isreal are just 'Bumps in the road". The Debats should be fun to watch!!!

    September 24, 2012 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  25. Margo

    Romney you have already showed yourself, you have no intention of representing all Americans...only your rich cronies. The rest of us are useless victims. Who knows what elseyou have said that we haven't heard. Scary, that is all I can say. Any Ryan, Mr Tea Party....keep your religion to yourself. We don't want it in our government.

    September 24, 2012 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
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