Debate Stakes: Empathy, Likability, and Winning Over Voters

Naureen Khan

Mitt Romney has billed himself as the turnaround guy, and the first presidential debate presents a major opportunity for him to prove it by reviving his White House bid. The 90-minute forum at the University of Denver is a prime-time chance for both Romney and President Obama to argue the unfiltered case for themselves – and against their opponents – to tens of millions of Americans watching at home. Here are some of the political needs and goals of the two nominees.

PLAY OFFENSE. For months, polls have shown Obama with a slight lead over Romney nationally and in some of the most pivotal swing states. Romney, as the challenger, sorely needs to land a few blows, cut into Obama’s front-runner narrative, and change the perception that he is losing the race. Presidential debate experts say all it takes is a single moment—a particularly effective attack by Romney, which perhaps elicits a particularly bad reaction from Obama—to leave a lasting impression with voters.

DEFEND, BUT CAREFULLY. Obama has a lengthy domestic record that Romney has been preparing for weeks to hammer. The president must defend his policies while also commiserating with those who are struggling with unemployment or underemployment. He will, with some justification, blame Republicans in Congress for thwarting many of his proposals to bolster the economy, but he also needs to avoid coming off as a weak leader who could not bend Capitol Hill to his will. Any stumbles could disrupt his delicate grip on a second term.

EMPATHY DEFICIT. Romney must find a way to show he cares. The secret video of Romney, the private-equity tycoon, deriding 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax as government-dependent Obama supporters seems to be taking a toll, particularly among women and in swing states. Romney’s national poll numbers are bouncing back to their pre-convention levels, but his favorability ratings are still mired underwater. While 55 percent of registered voters have a favorable opinion of Obama, according to the Pew Research Center, only 45 percent say the same about Romney.

IVORY TOWER ALERT. While Romney is caricatured as stiff, awkward, and rich, Obama often comes off as less than warm and approachable. Moreover, he has a tendency to seem professorial at the podium, sometimes even condescending, giving lengthy, hard-to-digest answers. The millions of Americans who have been slow to feel the effects of the economic recovery aren’t looking for a lecture.

REACH OUT. Obama has built his lead nationally by stitching together core constituencies one by one, from the gay community to women to Latinos. The strategy appears to be working: Romney trails among women, 31 percent to Obama’s 49 percent, according to a recent YWCA-sponsored poll and is losing the Hispanic vote to Obama 73 percent to 21 percent nationally, according to the latest weekly tracking survey from Latino Decisions. The debate is one of Romney’s last best chances to pitch himself to Hispanics and women—both groups he needs more help from to win. It’s also a chance for Obama to make some converts among the blue-collar white men who are resistant to him but in many cases are not wild about Romney, either.

LOOK PRESIDENTIAL. Through their campaign ads and surrogates, the Romney and Obama camps have been unafraid to go for the jugular. Still, petty squabbles—for example, about tax returns or birth certificates or when exactly Romney left Bain Capital—will not inspire much confidence among those watching at home. Many voters are already fed up with the nasty tenor of campaign season. Both candidates will have to be aggressive but at the same time exhibit the dignity befitting the office. Highly recommended: a focus on big issues and a good humored approach to differences. In other words, deliver that cutting sound bite with a smile.

NO GAFFES. Both candidates have proven capable of careless syntax and statements that have fueled opposition ads and rhetoric. When Romney tried to make a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry during a debate, it reinforced his image as hopelessly out-of-touch with lower-income Americans and became one of the most memorable moments of the GOP primaries. He should also refrain from discussing the cars his family drives or friends who own football and NASCAR teams. For his part, Obama would be ill served by offhand zingers like, “You’re likable enough, Hillary”—the line that may have won the New Hampshire primary for Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008. He should also take pains to express love for the private sector and distaste for big government. See: “You didn’t build that.”

(SEE ALSO: National Journal's Official Debate Drinking Game!)