It’s the debate before the debates: Who gets to play the role of underdog, President Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney?
Neither candidate wants to be labeled the favorite and with a week to go before the first rhetorical rumble of the general election, each campaign is—in a dramatic departure from its usual negativity—praising the opposition.
“Mitt Romney had many, many debates, and he was very good in them,” Obama adviser David Axelrod told Reuters last week, referring to Romney’s 20 debates during the Republican primary. “By and large, when he needed to bring it, he did. He memorizes his set pieces, and he delivers them well.”
Another Obama adviser, Robert Gibbs, was more direct during an appearance on CNN Sunday.
“Mitt Romney, I think, has an advantage,” Gibbs said.
Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who has played Obama in Romney’s debate preparations, responded on Monday: “One thing that I think has been missing in some of the discussion I’ve heard is that Barack Obama is a very effective debater,” Portman told Politico. “He’s articulate; he’s smart. He did a great job in 2008 during that campaign as a debater.”
The same candidates who have spent months trying to convince voters of their superiority on everything from the economy to foreign policy now are attempting to relieve the pressure to win arguments on those very subjects.
“Why do they do it? Because if you don’t do as well, you have an excuse,” said Allan Louden, chair of the communications department at Wake Forest University and an expert on political debates. “If you exceed expectations, everyone’s elated.”
The strategic lowering of debate expectations goes back at least as far as the 1980 presidential race between incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter and GOP nominee Ronald Reagan, Louden said.
A Globe story published on the day of that year’s second debate quoted Reagan press secretary Lyn Nofziger as saying “there’s minimal risk for Reagan. There’s enormous risk for Carter.” Another Reagan aide said that “if Reagan gets a draw, Carter loses.”
After setting his standard of success at a mere tie, Reagan was more brazen after a good performance in Cleveland, declaring he had won before flying to Texas. Polls backed up his claim: An ABC News/Harris survey showed voters overwhelmingly believed Reagan won, 44 percent to 26 percent. An Associated Press poll gave Reagan the victory, 46-34.
This year, there will be three 90-minute debates between Obama and Romney, each of which will be televised between 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. The first is next Wednesday at the University of Denver, where the focus will be on domestic policy.
The second debate is Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. and will feature questions from undecided voters in the style of a town hall meeting. The final debate is Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. and will cover foreign policy.
Vice President Joe Biden will debate Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan on Oct. 11 at Centre College in Danville, Ky. on both foreign and domestic topics.
The goal for each campaign, Louden said, is to control the media narrative before and after the debates. There are explicit and implicit arguments on both sides.
The explicit argument from the Obama campaign is that Romney should be expected to fare well because of his recent debate experience and reportedly intense preparation. The implicit argument is that for the same reasons, Romney should be pilloried if he fares poorly.
Romney’s explicit argument is that he is well-practiced, yes, but has not debated a Democrat in a decade and that Obama has the advantage of being president—dealing with the foreign and domestic duties of the office every day. The implicit argument is that a debate defeat would be embarrassing for the incumbent.
“Who’s really the underdog? I think it’s pretty irrelevant,” Louden said.Callum Borchers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.