The presidential debates are a storied tradition in America’s presidential elections. They tend to be more serious than the often superficial primary debates (which have escalated to a new low in this year’s Republican primary). The last presidential election featured Barack Obama debating John McCain. There were none of the game-changing fireworks that occurred in previous debates, and indeed the vice presidential debate caught more interest. Nevertheless, the general consensus was that Obama won. He did this not by landing a devastating blow on McCain, but merely by appearing more presidential and dignified.
Obama will probably not win the 2012 presidential debates. There are several reasons why this will happen. These reasons are neither complex nor convoluted; they’re just restating some common-sense principles.
Reason #1: The Republican candidates have much more practice debating than Obama does. Obama’s last debate occurred more than three years ago, during the fall of 2008. On the other hand, the Republican candidates have been debating for months now, often with one debate every week. That’s a lot of practice for the fall 2012 debates, and they’ve gotten pretty good. Much has been made about how Mitt Romney is now quite a skilled debater after the grueling schedule he’s just gone through. Newt Gingrich is no slouch either; his campaign revival is almost singlehandedly due to strong debate performances.
Reason #2: Obama is not a great debater. This is something that tends to be forgotten, but Obama struggled repeatedly in his debates against Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s strong performances were responsible for her summer lead in 2007 against Obama, and they helped her win Ohio and Texas when her campaign desperately needed to. Many undecided voters watched Clinton and Obama debate before crucial primaries; Obama’s consistent weaker performances probably cost him a lot of strength with those voters.
All this is not to say that Obama will actually lose the presidential election itself. John Kerry, after all, did much better than George W. Bush in 2004; he still lost. Walter Mondale’s strong debate performances against Ronald Reagan gave him absolutely no help. Debate winners do not necessarily become presidents.
But mark this prediction for the calendar: Obama will lose the 2012 presidential debates.