The Debate Expectations Game

How Romney botched the debate expectations game—and Obama played it perfectly. By Michelle Cottle.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Is there anyone left out there who hasn’t yet offered Mitt Romney advice on his upcoming debates? Anyone at all? You there, back in the corner Tweeting about Honey Boo Boo: Any words of wisdom for Mitt? If so, speak right on up, because the political world has ruled (perhaps a wee bit hyperbolically) that, unless Romney kicks some serious Obama ass next week in Denver, his White House dreams are deader than disco.

The panic is understandable. Despite Paul Ryan’s awesome Power Point slides and P90X-honed abs, Romney’s poll numbers have been sliding in exactly the wrong direction postconventions. A crisp, clear, resounding debate victory is the governor’s best shot at turning this baby around.

Why then does Team Romney seem dead set on making such a breakthrough performance nearly impossible?

It’s not that Romney isn’t practicing. Quite the contrary: hardly a day goes by when we don’t hear about how fired up the governor is about the debates. For weeks now, he has been hitting the books whenever and wherever he can—on the trail, at his home in Boston, at his other home in New Hampshire. He and Rob Portman, the campaign’s stand-in for Obama during practice sessions, recently conducted five mock debates in two days. And lest anyone fret that Romney doesn’t understand the need to make a strong impression, earlier this week his running mate assured supporters in Colorado that the governor will “absolutely” be taking it to the president.

Wow. With the entire race on the line and with Romney throwing himself heart and soul into his debate studies, we should all be expecting the governor to deliver, not just a good performance in Denver next Wednesday, but a knockout one. Right?

You see where I’m going with this.

Romney may be a good debater. He may even be a great debater. But at this point his team has fumbled the expectations game to the point where the governor will need to perform at a level well above anything we’ve seen from him to date if he wants to pull off the “W.” Just holding his own against the president—often a challenger’s primary hurdle—won’t change the game, and, at this point, a game changer is what people are demanding.

Fair or not, this is the way campaigns play the expectations game, that disingenuous yet time-honored tactic of painting your own candidate as such a hopeless underdog that he will be lucky to get through a 90-minute debate without vomiting on his own notecards. The idea, of course, is that when he soars over this embarrassingly low bar, you can trumpet his stunning tour de force—and hopefully get the media to play along.

Most political veterans mock the game. “It’s kind of cornball,” asserts Clinton debate-prep vet (and Daily Beast contributor) Paul Begala. But as Begala also acknowledges, “You always play it.”

Republican presidential debate master Brett O’Donnell is more emphatic. “The expectations game is enormous,” insists O’Donnell, a veteran both of the Bush 2004 and McCain 2008 runs. “You want to try to raise the bar for your opponent. Audiences have a set of preconceived notions going into these things.”

This is one of the reasons campaigns often keep debate prep hush-hush, explains O’Donnell. “During the McCain campaign, I tried my dead-level best to make sure nobody knew anything,” he recounts. “I didn’t even allow our own campaign photographer in the room.”

Team Romney seems not to put much stock in this particular playbook, with the campaign sounding outright boastful. Earlier this month, a top aide told BuzzFeed, “We’re going to be ready—very ready to face the president and we’re going to win.”

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By contrast, Team Obama continues downplaying their man’s prep work at every turn. The campaign has been stingy with details about practice sessions, even as press secretary Jen Psaki is sent out to bad-mouth the president’s chances. One week she’s lamenting her boss’s loquaciousness: “The shorter format of the debates is not always conducive to somebody who gives comprehensive, substantive answers.” The next she is explaining that world crises have cut into his schedule: “He’ll have less time than we anticipated to sharpen and cut down his tendency to give long, substantive answers.”

Poor, poor Obama. So unsuited and ill prepared for the rigors of high-stakes debating. Of course he cannot be expected to fare very well against the leaner, meaner, sharpened-by-the-primaries, vastly more practiced Romney. All things considered, we should consider it a win if the president even manages to remember Jim Lehrer’s name. Really.