Thursday, October 18, 2012

Presidential Debates: Why It Doesn't Matter Who's Right

The last Presidential debate was a couple nights ago. Well, the last one that really matters. The REAL last one is next Monday, but it's another formal debate and it's about foreign policy and typically most people have made up their minds by then and foreign policy doesn't really matter enough to most people to make a significant difference.

I don't want to make this post about my personal political views, because that's not really important. I'm not going to try to convince anybody that they should vote one way or another because I'm not really interested in doing that.

So when I say "Obama is pretty much definitely going to win the election", I don't want you to think that I'm boasting or trying to convince anyone (least of all myself). I'm genuinely pretty much certain that Obama won this election on Tuesday.

A lot of people might disagree with me for a number of reasons.

The first thing they might say is that in terms of polls, Romney has just today finally gotten ahead of Obama in the electoral vote projection (depending on who you ask). Well, that does suggest that the Vice Presidential debate didn't account for squat in terms of stopping Romney's momentum, so that's nice, but we really haven't seen how Tuesday's debate has affected polls yet.

The slightly more common thing that they will say is something like what Karl Rove said recently. That it doesn't matter that Romney lost the debate because he's still "winning the argument". In other words, he'll still win because the majority of Americans intuitively know that Romney is a better candidate than Obama since he's on the "right" side of the argument.

Let me counter that with pretty much the exact reason why I believe Obama has this election in the bag.

This election is almost identical to the 2004 election, just with the parties reversed.

I'm not the only one who's noticed this, so I won't go into too much detail, but let me cover the bullet points:
- Incumbent is severely hated by the opposing party's base. He is often called "the worst President in history" and during the primary, when asked who should be elected, the party base will tend to say, "Anyone but *incumbent*."
- Incumbent is not entirely well-loved by his own party. Those who voted for him wonder if he could have done much better.
- During the primary, the opposing party has a lot of potential nominees, but any time one of them takes the lead, they have some incredibly embarrassing gaffe that causes them to drop in the polls, resulting in the base nominating some middle-aged white guy who "looks Presidential" and is "electable" simply because he tells people what they want to hear and hasn't made an ass of himself yet. No one checks his record to see if he actually means a thing he says, they just like that he knows his talking points.
- As his running mate, the challenger picks a young, good-looking guy to counter the publicly-derided grumpy old man currently acting as Vice President.
- During the first debate, the challenger pivots to a surprisingly moderate stance that doesn't match his record, believing that the incumbent will accuse him of being extreme. Challenger proves correct and wins the first debate.
- Challenger gets a bump but is still technically behind in the polls by just a little bit.
- Vice Presidential debate is too close to call and doesn't seem to make a difference. The standing Vice President does better than most people expected he would.
- During the second debate, the incumbent gets more aggressive and accuses the challenger of being inconsistent while defending his own questionable record suggesting that it has worked better than we've been led to believe and it was just due to unforeseen circumstances that things have gotten so bad, and given more time it will prove to work out. Incumbent wins second debate.
- Supporters of challenger say that it doesn't matter if he "lost" the debate because he's still on the winning side of the argument.

That's about as far as we've gotten so far this year, but I'll tell you what happens next. The incumbent holds on to his narrow lead and the supporters of the challenger will say that the polls aren't entirely accurate and don't account for XYZ, leading to a surprise victory for the challenger. Then election day comes and they find that the polls were absolutely right and their challenger didn't even come close. Initially they will be in denial, maybe accuse the incumbent of ballot-stuffing, but it won't amount to anything. In time they will realize that it didn't matter that they were on the "winning side of the argument".

And that's what I want to talk about.

In 2004, the Democrats believed they had it easy. Bush was not a popular President. He got us into two awful wars, his negligence was believed to be a part of the reason that 9/11 was allowed to happen, the economy was not doing well despite his tax cuts, the surplus turned into deficit, and the political landscape was becoming divided, despite Bush saying he would be a uniter, not a divider. A popular documentary came out, "Fahrenheit 9/11", which riled up a lot of Democrats and gave them things to point at when claiming that Bush was the worst President in history. And on top of all this, Bush was one of the most gaffe-prone President's in history. He really did come off like an idiot most of the time.

The Democrats believed that they were in the right, and perhaps they were. By the end of Bush's second term, we found ourselves in economic peril and nothing seemed to be going well, so maybe the Democrats should have won (which probably helped get Obama elected four years ago).

Regardless, even if the Democrats were on the "right" side of the argument, they still lost.

Why? Because being on the "right" side of the argument is not enough.

Sure, it's enough for people like Karl Rove. But those people aren't watching the debates to be convinced. To them it's like watching a football game. They want to see their team win.

The problem is that Karl Rove believes that Romney won Tuesday's debate (or that it doesn't matter who "won", take your pick) because to him, Romney wins by default simply because he's "right". Romney didn't convince Karl Rove of anything, Karl Rove just likes what Romney is selling.

But the Patriots don't go to the Super Bowl just because they're a "better team". They go because they win games. Maybe they're more inclined to win a game because they're a "better team", but it doesn't guarantee them anything.

Likewise, maybe Romney has a better platform to run on. Maybe he has a better record. And yes, that should make it easier for him to win a debate. But he only wins the debate if he can convince the audience that he IS a better candidate. The winner is not predetermined.

The point of a debate is to convince people who haven't picked a team. They want to hear both arguments and the winner is usually the one that ends up being more persuasive to them. It doesn't matter who is objectively better (if such a thing can even be determined) because unless that comes through during the debate, it won't matter to a lot of undecided voters.

On Tuesday, Obama won the debate. His supporters feel less awful about re-electing him, Romney's supporters are in defense mode, and the people in between are thinking that they'd rather go with the devil they know than the guy with the "binders full of women" who seems to change his mind every other week about what he supports. You don't need polls to tell that Obama won because you can just tell by the climate. Democrats are making jokes and Republicans are trying to explain why not all hope is lost. That's pretty damning.

Romney came off a a guy who doesn't have his facts straight, a guy who is a different person depending on who he's talking to, and as a guy who is afraid to tell us something can't be done.

It doesn't matter if Romney really would be a better President at this juncture, because right now, it's hard to see what's so much better about him based on his public performance alone.

Sorry, Republicans, but you've probably lost.

I COULD be wrong, I suppose. Maybe since the 2004 election resulted in re-electing someone who, in hindsight, probably shouldn't have been re-elected, it will make some voters think twice about siding with "the devil they know". Maybe next week's debate will feature Obama doing something SERIOUSLY embarrassing and it will give Romney another bump. It is true, at this point if Romney gets another bump, he'll probably win. But Tuesday was his last big chance to get another bump and he lost it. The stakes on Monday aren't high enough to make this an easy turning point for him, but I guess it COULD be done. It's just not terribly likely.

You can probably find other ways for Romney to pull out one more comeback, but don't for a second think that he'll win just because he's "right" or because Obama is "the worst President in history". Because it wasn't enough for Kerry.