Friday, March 4, 2011

The Difference in 2012 May Be In The Debates

The horses are lining up at the starting gate for the big race of 2012. Of course, every pundit, every observer; yes, virtually every voter is trying to handicap this race. We have a good idea who will be running for the Republican nomination, and we know with almost certainty (at this point in time) who will be the Democratic nominee.

But who will be the GOP nominee against Barack Obama?

As in every presidential election cycle, certain factors weigh more than others in this contest, and from cycle to cycle their relative importance changes.

Some of these factors are recent. Certainly, cable TV, the internet and other new technologies had great impact in the past, as usually one candidate exploited the new technology better than his or her opponents. Mass direct mailings used to be a powerful tool to reach voters, and to some extent still are, but today many new communication forms are available. This includes not only employing various refined tools of the internet, but also so-called robo-calling in which large numbers of voters are reached through automatic and recorded and sometimes interactive telephone. In 2004, Howard Dean’s campaign, although he did not did not win the nomination, nevertheless very successfully raise large sums of campaign funds via the internet, something Barack Obama also did in 2008.

What will be the dispositive factors of the 2012 campaign? Money, of course, will continue to be quite critical. After winning Iowa in 2008, Mike Huckabee did not ever have the financial resources to build on that success in later primaries and caucuses. Media coverage in 2008 was so one-sided that it was increasingly difficult for McCain-Palin to get their message across successfully. By that cycle, conservative radio talk hosts, Fox News and a plethora of conservative columnists had begun to match the liberal bias of the Old Media, but there were misgivings about Senator McCain in some conservative circles, and his communications lacked the impact of the young and unknown senator from Illinois who had upset Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and subsequently outspent the GOP ticket by a huge sum. There are some estimates for Mr. Obama’s campaign to raise and spend a billion dollars in the 2012 cycle.

The U.S. media has been changing very rapidly in recent years, and in the 2012 cycle, conservative and liberal media are more evenly matched than in recent memory. Second-term elections of presidents are historically races about how voters feel about them and their policies. Mr. Obama continues to have problems in the polls, although his numbers are higher than for many recent first-term presidents who were ultimately re-elected. The problem for the president seems to be that, although he maintains a certain consistent personal popularity, his policies are much more unpopular. This is aggravated by the nation’s continuing economic problems, particularly chronic unemployment. The Obama administration’s sole major legislative accomplishment, healthcare reform, moreover is so unpopular that provided much of the catalyst for the Democratic party’s huge losses in the 2010 mid-term elections.

Thus, the Republicans probably don’t need to have an astonishingly charismatic nominee. What they do need is a nominee who can credibly convey he or she knows how to solve our domestic and foreign policy problems, can identify what they are,.and will not require on-the-job training as Mr. Obama did in 2009-10.

This leads me to conclude that while money, name recognition, a good resume and excellent organization will once again be very important, the series of debates, mostly the ones that are televised or taped, will have greater impact in this cycle than any in recent memory. It will not only be ”appearances” that will count, as they did in the first televised debate in 1960 when John F. Kennedy looked much better than Richard Nixon. (It’s important to remember that most voters who heard the debate on radio instead of TV thought that Nixon had won the debate). This time I think voters will be looking for an executive and leader who will transmit his or her knowledge of the problems the nation faces, and convey a clear sense they know what to do when in office. If the Republicans put up an amateur, they will lose. It is interesting to remember that in his pivotal race to win a third term, President Franklin Roosevelt was thought to be vulnerable in 1940. The GOP, however, nominated an unknown businessman who had lots of charm, but could not compare in reliability to FDR as war clouds began to cross the skies from Europe.

Of course, the campaign organization of each GOP hopeful will be trying to convey their candidate’s “bona fides,” but the nature of the media today means that the real tests will be in the face-to-face, one-on-one debate combats that will begin soon in Iowa, and will quickly spread out across the nation and over the airwaves.

I am not just speaking of “debating” skill. I am speaking of the whole impression a candidate will give. As Ronald Reagan and Kennedy both demonstrated, a sense of humor is invaluable. Both of their opponents, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon were humorless communicators. Knowledge of their subject will be also vital. With a relentless media on both sides looking on, frequent mistakes of facts and representation will become mortal wounds to a candidacy. (Vice presidential candidates were perhaps excepted from this rule, in 2008. Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, each in their own way, kept making mistakes.)

Although I do agree that domestic economical issues will be primary again in 2012, the instability in the world, the the transformation of the U.S. role in the world, will require a successful GOP nominee to demonstrate a depth of knowledge, understanding and skill in foreign affairs as perhaps more than in recent previous presidential elections.

Finally, I’m not sure that “flamboyance” or “charisma” will be as important in these upcoming debates as depth of knowledge and understanding, and the skill a candidate has in communicating their will and self-confidence to take his or her rightful place in the world arena and among the other leaders in the world. That arena contains friends and foes, and those who are merely resentful of us, but all of them will still be looking once more for American initiative and leadership.

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