Sunday, June 17, 2012

2012 Presidential Debate Preview, Part II

In Part I of the preview for the presidential debates between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, we took a look at the history of presidential debates. The debates tend to have a major impact on the race, and very often end up being decisive. Rarely does a candidate win the election after losing the debates. And so far, no challenger has defeated an incumbent president without first winning the debates. What else can history tell us about how the 2012 presidential debates may play out?

In Part I, we listed each of the elections in which televised presidential debates took place, and noted some patterns that emerged over the decades. Upon looking at the list of winners and losers, another pattern reveals itself, one which may have implications for 2012: Incumbent presidents tend to debate poorly.

There have been 6 different elections in which incumbent presidents participated in debates. In only one case--Bill Clinton in 1996--did an incumbent president manage to win the debates. Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter (1976), Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan (1980), Ronald Reagan lost to Walter Mondale (1984), George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton (1992), and George W. Bush lost to John Kerry (2004).

Is this pattern significant, or is it just a coincidence? There's good reason to take the pattern seriously: Often, the incumbents who lost the debates were not poor debaters. In fact, most of the time, the incumbent had won the presidency after defeating someone else in the debates:

Carter lost his debate with Reagan, but Carter had been skilled enough to beat Ford in their debates four years earlier. Having won the presidency in large part due to his debate performance, Reagan nonetheless went on to lose his debates with Mondale. Bush Sr. didn't necessarily lose his debates in 1988 (arguably Michael Dukakis' gaffe about the death penalty left Bush Sr. the winner by default), but he was clearly worse against Clinton in 1992. Bush Jr. would never have beaten Al Gore in 2000 without his debate victories, but he then lost to Kerry.

Clinton is the lone exception. All the other incumbent presidents saw their debate performances deteriorate significantly when they ran for reelection. This shouldn't be unexpected. Presidents are famously run ragged by the demands of the job. They have less time to prepare for the debates, since they must continue performing the job's duties (to some extent), while the challenger is running for president full-time. Presidents are likely to be overconfident, having spent nearly four years in the nation's highest office. It's also likely that most challengers, having not yet achieved their ambition of becoming president, want victory more.

There's another reason why incumbents might be at a disadvantage: Presidential primaries include a lot of debates. Particularly in the last few election cycles, debates have proliferated in the primary schedules. Romney participated in no less than eighteen major debates in the last twelve months, while running for the Republican nomination. By contrast, when the debates start in October, Obama will have gone nearly four years without having participated in a single debate. Both candidate will do debate preparation, but it's not hard to see why the challenger would be at an advantage.

Though Obama defeated John McCain their debates in 2008, we should assume Romney will have the edge, particularly in the first debate, when Obama will be most out of practice. Practice is important, particularly for candidates who are not very skilled at debate. Obama improved much over the course of the 2008 Democratic primaries, which included a soul-crushing twenty-five separate debates. In the beginning, Obama was fairly poor at the debates; he gained skill by the time it mattered. If going four years without debating returns Obama closer to his ordinary skill level, he will be in danger.

Romney, meanwhile, seems to understand the importance of preparing for debates. He was much better in the 2012 Republican primary debates than in 2008. Putting more focus on debates seems to have been one of the lessons Romney learned from 2008. Judging by Romney's recent past, his "challenger's ambition," and the historical pattern, it's likely that Romney will win the 2012 presidential debates.