For weeks now, the respective campaigns of President Obama and Mitt Romney have been locked in a desperate, absurd race to lower debate expectations for themselves. The Romney campaign has lavished praise on Obama’s gifts as an orator and communicator — probably the first time it has complimented him for anything in two years. Obama calls himself “just okay.” It’s a ridiculous exercise, but it makes sense: If the nation expects little of you, then even a mediocre performance seems like a pleasant surprise — in other words, how you’d feel if you went to see a new Adam Sandler movie and it didn’t make you want to gouge out your eyes with a corroded grapefruit spoon.
But with only two days until Obama and Romney attempt to wow the nation with their mediocre debating skills, Romney is emerging as the clear winner of the expectations game. According to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, voters by a 56–29 margin believe that Obama will best Romney in the debates. That’s a lot of people who stand to be impressed by Romney’s ability to string together coherent sentences and/or not drool on himself.
So why does our headline also say Romney is losing the expectations game? Because there are actually two of them going on at once. The first concerns how well Romney will perform versus how well he is expected to perform. The second is how well he performs versus how well he needs to perform in the context of the race’s overall dynamics. And on that measure, the pressure on Romney is only growing. The Washington Post/ABC News poll also shows Romney trailing Obama among likely swing-state voters by eleven points, and the conventional wisdom is increasingly seeing the race as Obama’s to lose. As Nate Silver told us last week, Romney probably needs more than a field goal to catch up in the polls. Even Romney’s own staffers are saying (anonymously) that if Romney doesn’t blow Obama away, the race is basically over.
In fact, considering that, historically, only a couple of presidential debates are thought to have actually altered the outcome of the race, the most likely post-debate narrative may be that Romney did better than expected, but not well enough to existentially undermine Obama’s lead. Of course, you never know what could happen. Maybe Romney’s “zingers” are just that good.