You can almost chalk Tuesday’s presidential debate up as draw before it even starts. This verdict should not depress Republicans because it does not mean Mitt Romney won’t again do a stellar job. What it means is that because of the first debate, the landscape has changed and there are factors in play this time that are largely beyond his control.
Expectations have been reset, if not entirely reversed, because of Mr. Romney’s first debate victory. The first time, Mr. Romney benefitted from unrealistically low expectations –- a product of Mr. Obama’s campaign strategy of personal diminution and the press’s readiness to echo it. That advantage is gone.
Gone too are the equally unrealistically high expectations that previously prevailed for Mr. Obama. It is now all too clear that he is not the Democratic Demosthenes advertised. Of course, no one could have been, but Mr. Obama paid a price for it. This time he won’t have to because expectations for his performance have been lowered. Most people expect another Romney win.
Expectations are important, especially in the subjective world of politics. There are no objective standards when it comes to political debates — no rules or standards that produce a clear winner and loser out of each contest. The outcome is what we make of it, measured against the expectations we bring to them.
Mr. Romney’s first debate triumph was built on the fact that he vastly exceeded, while Obama greatly fell below, the public’s pre-debate expectations. The combined separation was unmistakably large and so the verdict on the debate was unquestionably clear. The outcome this time will be far murkier. Expectations are more realistic this time.
It will be very hard for Mr. Romney to improve from his first debate performance. He did all the right things then. While it is certainly possible that he could do them better, it won’t be easy. One of the hardest things there is to do is exactly the same thing twice.
Mr. Obama will certainly improve his performance. As Vice President Joseph R. Biden showed in the vice presidential debate, whatever else the Democrats are determined to be going forward, they are not going to be disengaged or dispassionate again. Such an approach will at least appeal to Mr. Obama’s base. While that may seem a small thing, it was something Mr. Obama failed to do the first time around.
The Democratic base will not let their guard down again. After the first debate, they, along with the media, let their disappointment rule them. They were shocked and unguarded enough to say so. They turned on Mr. Obama, his campaign, and even Jim Lehrer. Maybe they felt they had no choice, but this time they will feel they have no choice but to not do so. After the first debate fallout, they now know they are playing for keeps this time. Mr. Romney’s first debate win has been a huge boost when he desperately needed it. Another Romney boost could prove electorally fatal to Democrats so close to the election.
This time the president’s base will not allow themselves the luxury of venting their frustration with Mr. Obama’s performance –- regardless of what it turns out to be. By showing such restraint, they can at least assure that there will not be a clear-cut consensus as to who won this debate –- the very consensus that has continued to propel Mr. Romney since that first debate.
The final reason that this debate is likely to be judged a tie on the day after is that Mr. Romney does not have to win. This is not to say that he will not debate to win –- or that he should not prepare or try to. What it means is that he has already established his credibility in the first debate, making himself appear at least the equal to Mr. Obama in the eyes of much of the broader public. This time he does not have to extend himself to do so –- he just has to be himself.
The person who has to extend himself in this debate is the president. With that greater need, comes greater risk as well. You only had to watch the vice presidential debate to realize what that risk is.
Together this all means the second debate is likely going to be judged a tie in the media. Yet, Romney supporters should not be dismayed. A tie likely will just mean that their candidate has been a victim of his own success.
J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department, the Office of Management and Budget and as a congressional staff member.