There’s a certain inherent danger to handicapping a presidential debate. Everything that’s said about tomorrow’s debate in Miami — widely considered the most important because of the subject matter (foreign policy) and the audience size (expected to drop off with later debates) — gets thrown into the pre-debate spin cycle, wherein each side insists that its candidate is at a disadvantage, hoping to create expectations low enough to exceed impressively. By the logic of the expectations game, the very act of declaring an advantage for one candidate or the other marginally increases the chance that said declaration will prove itself wrong.
That said, a few things to consider.
The Rules. The Kerry and Bush camps have already slugged it out in a behind-the-scenes debate over the particulars of how the debates will operate. The Bush administration famously demanded that the schedule of three debates be reduced to two; it’s generally thought that avoiding debates — where the challenger has an opportunity to mount, well, a challenge — is to the incumbent’s advantage, particularly when he’s also the frontrunner. The Kerry camp fought for the full schedule, something that, Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill told Time, “was much more important to us than any detail of the format.”
But consider the concessions that the Bush camp got in exchange: Though Bush won’t stand on a “pitcher’s mound” to make up the several inches that Kerry has on, the podiums will be ten feet apart to blur the height difference. Tools that Kerry used in his successful debates against William Weld during the 1996 Massachusetts Senate race, like direct questions and roaming the stage, will be unavailable. Whenever a candidate exceeds his allotted time, his warning light — sure to prove a Victor Laszlo to the Rick and Ilsa of Kerry and his own voice — will appear on television. Add to all that expectations-game coup of a match-up being introduced by anchors as the debate that Bush didn’t want, and the President’s advantage on this front looks pretty clear-cut.
The Issues. That the first debate should concern foreign policy was another concession that the Bush campaign demanded and got; like several decades of Republican candidates, Bush enjoys an advantage here. The Bushies could not plan on yesterday’s announcement from Pyongyang that North Korea now has nuclear weapons; whatever the culpability of the previous administration, that the NorKs’ nukes went live on Bush’s watch is a liability that Kerry will surely try to exploit, though Kerry has his own vulnerability: he is on record in favor of cutting funding for a missile defense that will be operational very shortly, possibly before the election. As for Iraq, Dick Morris may well have been on to something Monday when he said on Hannity and Colmes that the President “has so emphasized Kerry’s flip-flopping, so-called weakness, vacillation, all that stuff, that Kerry has to take strong positions in the debate. And either way he takes a strong position on Iraq, he loses.” Conservatively, one must give at least a slight advantage to Bush here.
Likeability. Here’s where we must really puzzle over the effects of the spin cycle. It’s widely acknowledged that President Bush has a regular-guy charm and a gift for connecting with people, whereas Kerry has the personal magnetism of an android carved out of granite. This perception is so widespread that Kerry can almost exceed expectations by registering a pulse. It’s tempting to counterintuitively mark this as an advantage for Kerry based on his cultivated ability to generate a “he’s not so bad” reaction. Lest we be accused of being cynical expectations-masseuses, let’s call this one even.
As the race stands, President Bush has a small but real lead; if the election were held today, he would almost certainly win. This gives him a strategic as well as psychological edge. The debates may not change the dynamics of the race at all, or they may help Bush, or they may help Kerry. Two of those three possibilities would be good news for George Bush. John Kerry can afford only one of them.