LEWISBURG — If Chris Ellis were moderating Wednesday’s first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, the first question the Bucknell University professor would ask is something the incumbent Democrat has never adequately answered:
Exactly what do you plan to accomplish in your second term as president?
“President Obama’s campaign has made a good case for why he deserves a second term,” said Ellis, an American politics expert, “but unlike four years, ago he hasn’t said a lot about what he would do in these four years, aside from a few politician-speak generalities.”
To Romney, a Republican still stinging after his “47 percent” video recently surfaced, Ellis would first ask: What steps will you take to ensure all Americans are better off under your presidency?
“This hits at the ‘47 percent’ issue to some extent,” Ellis said, and “also asks him to talk about how he will cope with rising inequality and a growing mismatch between skills and available jobs among some types of workers, which is campaign has basically been silent on.”
Wednesday’s debate is more important for Romney at this stage, Ellis said.
Political scientists usually dismiss the idea that gaffes or missteps made by candidates can really decide an election because they usually mean a lot less in retrospect than they do when they are dominating the news cycle.
“But it’s looking pretty clear that ‘47 percent’ comment has hurt Romney in a pretty substantial way,” Ellis said. “At least in the short term. It’s important for him not to just have a good rhetorical debate, but also to humanize himself again — to look like someone voters can trust to care about them.”
It’s important for Romney to be on the stage with Obama, but it’s also a bit dangerous.
“It’s Romney’s job to find a way to look calm, civil and presidential,” Ellis said, “but at the same time find a way to respond forcefully to what surely will be very direct attacks from someone who has opened up a substantial lead on him. (U.S. Sen.) John McCain was in a similar situation in 2008, and didn’t handle it well.” Message moments
The economic situation in the country was never as bad for Obama’s re-election prospects as it’s often made out to be, Ellis said.
“The economy’s not great by any stretch,” he said. “But we haven’t been in a recession for some time, and the recovery is very slowly chugging along. We usually re-elect incumbent presidents in those circumstances, as we did with George Bush in 2004.”
Any new good economic news in the final stretch of the campaigns will probably hurt Romney’s chances, but it’s not as if he was in an obvious position of strength on economic matters to begin with, Ellis said.
“The most important message that Romney can drive home is one that makes the point that Obama’s presidency has not been what they were told it would be,” Ellis said.
A number of Romney’s strengths — his business background and private sector experience, for example — have been neutralized by Romney’s own comments and Obama’s attack ads. And Americans are giving Obama some credit for the economic recovery.
“So Romney has to remind voters that most of the promises that Obama made four years ago, not only with policy and economic growth, but in trying to be a ‘new type’ of politician — simply haven’t come true,” Ellis said.
Obama’s job in the debates is to play it safe, to emphasize that the recovery is under way, and that though there is work to be done, things are moving in the right direction. Not much changes
“We tend to give incumbent presidents the benefit of the doubt unless there are compelling reasons not to do so,” Ellis said, “so Obama’s job is just to not give swing voters, many of whom are starting to lean the president’s way, reason to change their minds or think too hard about considering an alternative.”
The odds that debates will move the political needle much in the final month are slim.
“Voters’ impressions of the candidates are pretty close to set in stone at this point,” Ellis said, “and there aren’t many undecided citizens left. More importantly, history tells us that debates almost never matter to the eventual outcome.”
The closest example may be the Reagan-Carter debate of 1980, where Reagan so clearly outperformed Carter that it might have made voters take notice.
“But Reagan was probably going to be a winner regardless,” Ellis said. “The candidate that is ahead going into the debates is essentially always ahead coming out of the debates. So while it’s certainly possible someone says something extraordinarily memorable or compelling or stupid, I wouldn’t expect them to change many minds.”