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The Presidential Debate Reality Show

Tomorrow night’s presidential debate and the one that follows the next week may be the only opportunities for either President Obama or Mitt Romney to score a victory at their opponent’s expense before Election Day. So it’s no surprise that both are viewing it as having the potential to help determine the outcome of the contest. It remains to be seen whether the president’s attempt to correct his lackluster performance in the first debate will lead him to overcompensate by being too aggressive. Another point to watch will be whether Romney will be as on top of his game in a town hall setting where he will have to interact with voters — never his strong suit — as he was in the first debate. But almost as important as these questions will be how many Americans will actually watch it.

The first presidential debate was the most watched presidential debate since the first 1980 dustup between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as 67.2 million watched at home on television with many millions more seeing it at hotels and airports or taking it in on their computers and tablets. Traditionally, the first debate always draws a bigger audience than the next two or the vice presidential debate. That was certainly true of the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan slug- and smirk-fest last week that drew only 51.4 million seeing it at home. Those ratings were not only lower than the presidential debate showing, but a considerable drop from the 2008 veep debate in which nearly 70 million tuned in to see Sarah Palin. If the same holds true for the Tuesday night event at Hofstra University, that poses the question as to whether anything that happens there can possibly be as significant as Romney’s triumph two weeks earlier. If so, then President Obama will have to do more than simply improve on his first debate. He will have to mop the floor with Romney to create the momentum switch he needs.

Obama’s problem is not whether he can improve on his first debate. He can hardly help doing so. But outright wins like Romney’s are actually fairly rare in presidential debates. It takes either a brilliant speaker who shows up an opponent (Reagan telling Carter, “There you go again”) or a candidate making an egregious gaffe (Gerald Ford liberating Soviet-occupied Poland) or not showing up looking either prepared or acting as if he cared (Obama). Even if he holds his own, Romney will have to screw up for it to seem anything like a real win and the GOP standard-bearer is too detail-oriented and focused to allow that to happen.

Yet even if the president is able to convince the media that he came out slightly ahead, if the audience for the second debate is significantly smaller than the first, it won’t be much of a victory. Even a spin avalanche can’t make it as important as the first debate if far fewer Americans watch it.

That said the widespread assumption that the second debate will be less of a big deal might turn out to be wrong. If there was anything that we learned from the seemingly endless string of Republican primary debates last winter it is that each of them helped build the audience for those that followed. Granted, the audiences were far smaller, but they were nevertheless significant, as the series of GOP debates became the nation’s favorite political reality show.

That lesson may not apply to a debate that appeals to more than the political junkies who regularly watch cable news stations. But given the fact that the first debate appears to have fundamentally altered the direction of the campaign, there is a chance that there may not be as significant a drop-off in the ratings for the second one as many expect. As with the GOP debates, the mere fact that the first one was not the usual draw will impel more viewers to watch to see if this week’s episode will have its own surprises. Either way, the size of the audience will play a major role in determining how important it will turn out to be.



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