The 2012 Presidential Debates: Pre-Debate Media Frames

The presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will participate in three debates. The first will be a discussion of domestic policy on October 3 in Denver, followed by a town hall meeting-style debate on foreign and domestic policy on October 16 in Hempstead, New York, and finally a foreign policy deliberation on October 22 in Boca Raton, Florida.  The vice presidential candidates, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, will meet on October 11 in Danville, Kentucky.  (The Commission on Presidential Debates is a good resource on past and present debates.)

With the first presidential campaign debate fast approaching, the media pre-game show is in full swing.  In anticipation of the “Mile High Face Off” in Denver, the campaigns have launched extensive efforts to spin the pre-debate media messages and manage expectations of their candidate’s performance.  Press coverage has focused on a number of major themes.  

Candidates’ debate preparation and strategy.  It is standard practice for candidates to prepare for debates using stand-ins for their opponents. President Obama’s practice partner is Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts who ran for president in 2004. Mitt Romney’s Obama stand-in is Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a battleground state.  News reports emphasize that Romney has been preparing harder for the debates than Obama.  Romney has been carefully studying Obama’s previous debate performances, and has pointed out that he has never been in a presidential debate.  He has made it clear that he faces a formidable opponent, “The president is obviously a very eloquent, gifted speaker.”  His supporters feel that Romney needs to draw a stark contrast between himself and Barack Obama on the issues without appearing angry.  The Obama camp contends that the President doesn’t need much preparation because he is immersed in governmental policy.   His advisors recognize that Obama is not used to answering questions in brief as he often makes speeches, and so he must refresh his debating skills.

The horse race.  The established horse race frame that characterizes media coverage of elections is a central element of debate stories.  Horse race coverage focuses on which candidate is ahead and which is behind in election polls. (The HuffPost Election Dashboard provides poll tracking for all states.)  The press has deemed the first debate as “do-or-die” for Mitt Romney, as polls indicate that he is falling behind Barack Obama in key battleground states, including Ohio, Florida, and Virginia.  Romney is looking to the debates to rejuvenate his campaign after a series of setbacks including the well-publicized release of a video of his remarks at a private fundraising event.  Media commentary has emphasized that Romney must score a decisive victory and cannot just hold his own in the debate in order to keep his hopes alive.  The Obama campaign has tried to keep expectations low by emphasizing that the President has been focused on governing the country while Romney has been “prepping like an Olympic decathlete.”  A good performance in debates can help fundraising, solidify a candidate’s base, and stimulate turnout.  A superior candidate performance can produce a post-debate bounce in the polls.  Most often the debate bounce is short-lived, but occasionally it can boost a candidate that the press has all but written off.

Candidate personality and character.  Debates provide an opportunity for voters to gain glimpses of the candidates’ personalities.   The 2012 presidential campaign has been one of the nastiest in history.  The campaigns have been in heavy attack mode from the start, and press coverage has been overwhelmingly derogatory.  The Project for Excellence in Journalism found that over 70% of the press narratives about both candidates’ personalities have been negative.  Correspondingly, the public has difficulty relating to Obama and Romney on a personal level and find neither candidate to be particularly likeable.  The candidates can use the debates to convey civility, generate respect, and create a more favorable personal impression.  In the pre-debate hype, both sides have toned down their criticism of their opponents.

Appeal to voters.  A sizable portion of the electorate does not pay much attention to campaigns until the debates when they have the opportunity to get a close look at the candidates side by side.  The debates allow candidates to solidify and energize their base of supportive voters as well as to appeal to the undecideds.  Data indicate that most voters in 2012 have made up their minds, and there are few undecided voters.  Swing voters who are willing to cross party lines in elections are trending toward Obama, but many are still up for grabs.  They may use the debates to make a candidate choice.  Generally, the press is predicting that the candidates will take positions during these debates to solidify their voting base rather than appeal to undecided and swing voters because it is uncertain that uncommitted voters will turn out on Election Day.  A Saturday Night Live video illustrates the trending perception of the undecided voter as uninformed and not inclined to participate.

The first debate.  The first presidential candidate debate is especially important as it can set the agenda for the evaluation of future debate performances.   A candidate who has a weak debate debut or commits a gaffe will have a lot to overcome in subsequent debates.  A loser in the debates will have to contend with serious negative media as the campaign heads down the home stretch.  However, a questionable performance in an early debate is not insurmountable.  Republican Ronald Reagan’s performance in the first of the 1984 presidential debates raised concerns about his age and ability to govern.  He overcame this perception with a clever sound bite in the next debate, referring to his opponent Democrat Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience.”