Among the conservative blogosphere and Twittersphere, there’s quite a bit of cynicism about tonight’s proceedings: Candy Crowley will clearly attack Mitt Romney and toss softballs at the president. Clearly the so-called “undecided” voters in attendance aren’t really undecided, and they’ll ask questions designed to make Romney look bad and Obama look good. They’ll ignore the rule on cheering or applause. No matter what happens, most folks in the mainstream media will enthusiastically declare Obama the winner, decree he’s the “comeback kid,” and return to their regularly-scheduled coverage of an impending Obama landslide.
That cynicism is well-founded, and yet somehow liberating. If any of these don’t come to pass, it will be a pleasant surprise to many on the Right. If they do come to pass, at least the conservative grassroots was expecting it. And undoubtedly Mitt Romney — finishing up another round of intense preparation sessions — has thought of these potential obstacles and practiced how to handle them.
Candy Crowley will probably at least want to appear even-handed. Some of the undecided voters may be ringers, or they may be genuinely uninformed low-information voters who will offer the traditional lament, “I really haven’t heard either candidate say anything all this time about the economy.” (Maybe you’ll get a hybrid, like Ponytail Guy.) The audience may indeed ignore the rules, and create the raucous atmosphere that Obama prefers at his rallies.
We do know, after watching Romney two weeks ago, that there’s very little chance he turns in a bad performance, and while the town-hall format may not be his most natural setting, we know he’s capable of an exceptionally good one. We now know he’s capable of thoroughly beating Obama, and doing so in a way that Obama doesn’t even notice; the president walked off the stage convinced he won last time.
So unless Romney really stumbles, we’ll have a good Romney performance against a good Obama performance — probably not enough to undo the momentum and preference cascade set off by the first debate. If the media are determined to declare Obama the winner, let them. The people watching at home know what they see. About 70 million watched the first debate, and only 51 million watched the vice-presidential debate.
In fact, the media’s desperation to see a solid Obama win might provide one more example of low expectations that hurt the president in the long run. A common theory after the first debate was that the media’s kid-gloves treatment, and Obama’s reluctance to do challenging interviews or frequent press conferences, left him unprepared for a tough challenger and resorting to his usual shallow talking points. If Obama turns in a merely okay performance, and the media hypes it as a colossal showcase of excellence, it may just reaffirm voters’ doubts about the president.