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.