What Obama Needs to Do in Denver

What Obama Needs to Do in Denver

By Alexis Simendinger - October 1, 2012

As President Obama heads into the first of three debates with Mitt Romney nursing a slight lead in the polls, he has a wealth of historic precedent to draw on, and no shortage of advice -- much of it unsolicited -- to guide him.

Some 17 must-dos and don't-dos were passed along to RCP by scholars, experts, and political practitioners -- but long before the litany became that extensive, it emerged that one obvious pitfall for presidential candidates is over-analyzing the debates ahead of time.

Overthinking is not a candidate’s friend.

If Obama -- and Romney, for that matter -- has spent weekends memorizing the U.S. GDP going back a decade, rejiggering the decimal points behind his tax proposals, and rehearsing a folder full of tweet-inducing zingers, he just might miss his mark on Oct. 3.

“This is not a debate; this is a beauty pageant,” declared one Democrat who helped coach a former nominee for debates. A 90-minute wonk-fest anchored to policy will fall flat, he warned. “People like a candidate through the heart, not through the mind. And this election is now about character, not the economy.”

Obama enjoyed a bit of a boost at Romney’s expense after a secretly recorded video of the Republican describing the “47 percent” went viral on the Web. The president has been rated as more likable in polls, he flaunts his gravitas as commander-in-chief, and Americans say he understands the worries of the middle class.

If character is the threshold question for the tiny number of people in just a few important states who haven’t made up their minds yet, the president and his supporters believe Obama can make the sale during the debates.

“I think what voters are looking for is the sense that ‘this guy knows what he’s doing,’ and ‘I feel comfortable leaving this guy in charge,’ ” said Patti Solis Doyle, who ran Hillary Clinton’s campaign when she debated Obama (and the other Democratic presidential candidates) in 2008, and later helped prepare Joe Biden for his vice presidential debate with Sarah Palin.

With recent polls indicating that voters are leaning toward Obama in key swing states, the president hopes the debates can affirm or rekindle comfort with his leadership, policies and overall skills. At the same time, he wants to create doubts about Romney and angst about what might happen if the GOP controls the White House come January.

For Obama, winning the debates is about trust, and electoral math.

Political scientists who have analyzed campaigns and studied voters found that Americans are more reluctant to swap parties controlling the White House if voters made a party switch in the prior election. (President Jimmy Carter was an exception in 1980.) James E. Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, and author of "The American Campaign," calls this the “party incumbency advantage.”

But as recent polls have shown, many voters this year are torn between two candidates they find tough to love. Not since 1992, when voters confronted a three-way presidential contest as the country climbed out of a recession, has there been such a tepid level of satisfaction with the presidential choices, according to a report this week by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Fifty-four percent of voters said they were either very or fairly satisfied with the choice of Obama or Romney, while 40 percent said they are not too or not at all satisfied, according to the national survey. In 2004, 60 percent said they were satisfied with their choices, and by 2008, 72 percent of voters said they were pleased to choose between Obama and John McCain.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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