On Wednesday evening, voters will see President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney face off in the first presidential debate of the 2012 campaign, a high-stakes matchup that could change the course of the race. As the lagging economy continues to take a toll on Americans, voters want to hear how the candidates differ on domestic policy and learn more about their plans to fix the economy.
With only seven weeks remaining in the race, what effect can the debate have on the election outcome? On October 3, Brookings expert John Hudak took your questions and previewed the debate in a live web chat moderated by Vivyan Tran of POLITICO.
12:29 Vivyan Tran: Welcome to the chat everyone, let’s get started.
12:29 John Hudak: Since 1960, there have been 27 General Election Presidential Debates broadcast on television. Tonight PBS’ Jim Lehrer will moderate the 28th between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. Voters are wondering what to expect, what the candidates will say that is new, and what will be the effect of the debate. I hope I can answer some of these questions and more during the next half hour.
12:29 Comment from Josh G.: Do you think that Romney’s remarks on the 47 percent put the nail in the coffin for his campaign, or do you think the electoral race will still be close?
12:30 John Hudak: I don’t think it put the nail in his coffin, but perhaps close the casket lid. I think that he may be able to recover from this gaffe with an effective statement early on. If he doesn’t, Obama will keep hammering away–hammering at the final nails in the coffin.
12:31 Comment from Anonymous: What message can we expect to hear repeated and repeated from either candidate/party at tonight’s debate?
12:32 John Hudak: Obama will continue to repeat the 47% line and repeat President Bush’s name. This is the best line of attack for him in terms of polling and messaging. Romney will provide lines about Obamacare and trillion dollar deficits, the lines that poll best for him. These are best suited for a debate on the economy.
12:32 Comment from J.K. Gregg: Considering the low ratings for the GOP convention in September, do you think this first debate will be Mitt Romney’s first real introduction to undecided voters?
12:33 John Hudak: Gregg: Great question. What is important to distinguish here is WHO saw the conventions, not necessarily aggregate numbers. If a lot of undecideds watched the conventions, they are already introduced. However, my guess is you’re right, many did not, and they’re meeting Mitt for the first time-outside of TV ads. This may be too late in the game as he has been effectively painted as Mr. 47%.
12:33 Comment from VT: Are we only expecting questions about the economy?
12:35 John Hudak: The debate tonight focuses entirely on domestic affairs, is 90 mins. long and will be divided into six 15 minute parts. 45 minutes will be devoted entirely to the economy (this will compose the first three 15 minute segments). Following will be segments on health care, the role of government in society, and governance strategies. Now let me say a little about each and what effect it may have…
12:37 John Hudak: These are ideal topics for both candidates because the really provide the most stark contrasts on the issues. Unlike foreign affairs and immigration, these areas show the deepest disagreements. The way in which Obama wants to move the economy forward–spending on infrastructure, education, and society and funding it through taxation on the wealthy–differs greatly from Romney’s goals of greater income and personal autonomy through reductions in spending and taxes.
12:38 John Hudak: All of these things reflect different governing strategies as well as different approaches to the proper role of government in society: Obama thinks governing assists growth and development. Romney argues it holds back such growth.
12:38 Comment from Maria: Is Obama likely to bring up Romney’s 47% remarks?
12:39 John Hudak: REPEATEDLY. As I mentioned above, this issue has been Romney’s biggest gaffe and hurts him with middle class voters, women and Latinos, the groups he has struggled with the most. President Clinton said earlier in the campaign that Romney’s economic policies are like Bush policies on steroids…
12:40 John Hudak: The 47% comments for Romney are like Obama’s you didn’t build that gaffe on steroids….the exception is that Romney’s comments–even when heard in full context are brutally damaging with the voters he needs most—moderates in swing states .
12:40 Comment from Jon: Do you think we’ll hear anything about the fiscal cliff tonight?
12:42 John Hudak: My money (a $10,000 bet, if you will) is on Jim Lehrer opening with the fiscal cliff or a question on it coming very early on. This is the biggest economic issue facing the nation in the short term and one that has contributed to a Henny Penny-esque dire media narrative. Both candidates MUST convey in the clearest of terms how they seek to solve this issue…
12:43 John Hudak: If they give subpar answers or speak in empty recycled platitudes, you can be certain the voters will punish them–and so will the media. This is where detail matters and detail is something that has escaped both candidates in this election cycle. If Lehrer wants to set the fuse on some fireworks, this could be it.
12:43 Comment from Christine, MD: Of the three debates, which will be the most illuminating? Is this debate the most important b/c it focuses on the economy?
12:44 John Hudak: Perhaps, Christine. But the media narrative that if Romney doesn’t hit a homerun tonight his campaign is over is FOOLISH. If Obama beats him soundly in the debate the campaign will suffer, but if it is a draw, I think we can expect the next debate to be “the illuminating one.”
12:44 Comment from Anon: Could this debate really change the swing state polling?
12:45 John Hudak: This is an issue I have thought a lot about and let me take the time to offer some observations…
12:46 John Hudak: Every presidential candidate hopes that every move they make, every word they utter, every rally they attend, and every public appearance (large scale and small) will change the minds of swing voters (for the positive). If one of the candidates does that tonight it’s a win. However, these candidates have very different visions of where to take America and if undecided voters haven’t made up their mind yet, who knows what in tonight’s debate will help them. (See recent Saturday Night Live skit on the issue.) However, there may be another role for tonight’s debates….
12:48 John Hudak: Both candidates need a stellar ground game to win on Election night. They need their volunteers to get out the vote, motivate the faithful, drive key voters to the polls and get across the finish line. These debates can motivate those thousands of volunteers to work their hardest OR it can cause malaise…The candidate with volunteers who are only so-so about their guy, absolutely loses the election.
12:48 Comment from Anonymous: Does the vice presidential debate have any real significance?
12:50 John Hudak: Typically no. This year will likely be no different. People are electing a president, not so much a vice president and I think voters generally defer to the standard bearers to choose who they want. That said, both VP candidates struggle to say the right thing at the right time. Biden is a gaffe machine. Ryan is surgically attached to note cards–something that is either formally forbidden or is deeply damaging in a prime time debate. If one of them makes a huge mistake, then the VP debate becomes significant.
12:50 Comment From ABennet: During the “role of government in society” part – what will be important for each candidate to convey? The Republicans are very clear that they want government OUT of people’s lives – Democrats tend to waver according to what’s politically advantageous, no?
12:51 John Hudak: During this part of the debate candidates MUST NOT speak in blanket statements about big government vs. small government or relying on scare tactics or finger pointing. If they want to move voters–and voters that matter–they must not simply explain what they want government to do…they must explain how those policies, how that governing record, and how the “new” role of government will affect the everyday lives of everyday Americans.
12:52 John Hudak: Alternatively, it is the job of the other candidate to show how those policies will harm swing voters.
12:52 Comment From Bobi: How will Jim Lehrer’s performance at tonight’s debate impact the trajectory of the debate?
12:54 John Hudak: I have mixed feelings about what Lehrer will do tonight. He is obviously experienced and good at what he does, but so are the candidates. I refer you to a GOP primary debate this year where Gov Romney said “you can ask the questions you want and I’ll give the answers I want”. Some people thought that was a newsworthy gaffe–I thought it was a brilliant display of command and confidence…
12:55 John Hudak: It’s a strategy every presidential candidate takes and is one that Obama and Romney will take tonight. Lehrer may well sit back and let the candidates control the pace—whether that is good is open to question from voters–but might mean that he has little impact on the trajectory. The question for you then is who you want to be in command of the narrative candidates or commentators?
12:55 Comment from Liam: How do you think Romney will defend himself against the 47 % then?
12:56 John Hudak: People paid more money than me need to figure this one out. I have no idea. I will say he needs to shed the arrogant cold exterior and say “my policies will help everyone even if you won’t vote for me.” The way to do that well (and avoid Obama criticism) is a tough one. My guess is he comes up a bit short.
12:56 Comment From West coast: What about likeability? Are people looking for likeability in debates? Or will it help the candidates to be harsh and throw out facts?
12:57 John Hudak: Likeability plays a huge role here. The public generally dislikes Romney and likes the president. Romney needs to repair that image, but also if he appears to be bullying the President or treating the president as sub-presidential voters will see him as not only insulting the office and the man–but the man they like….it could truly backfire on him…it’s risky and a tightrope act.
12:57 Comment From Bobi: With early voting already happening, does that lessen the significance of the upcoming debates?
12:58 John Hudak: It can, but 95% of people still haven’t voted and swing voters surely haven’t. The people who vote now could’ve voted 6 months ago because they made up their mind. So, there will be no ultimate effect on the outcome.
12:59 John Hudak: Thanks everyone for a great discussion I hope you enjoyed as much as I did. I’ll be livetweeting tonight. Follow me on Twitter @JohnJHudak
12:59 Vivyan Tran: Thanks everyone, see you next week!
This week, voters will see President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney face off in the first presidential debate of the 2012 campaign. On October 3, Brookings expert John Hudak took your questions and previewed the debate in a live web chat moderated by Vivyan Tran of POLITICO.