When arranging a blind date for a friend, the easiest way to lower expectations is to remark first on the mystery date’s charming personality. In this manner, no matter how heinous the potential mate looks up close, it’s gotta be better than the expectation you had in your head.
Setting expectations for the first Presidential debate works in a similar way. Put your surrogates out there on the talk show circuit, and have them set the bar so impossibly low that regardless of the candidate’s on-stage burps, farts or wisecracks, he’ll be better than you expected. When you simultaneously match this bar-lowering approach with the deification of your opponent’s debating prowess, the gap between the two sets of expectations equals your opportunity for victory. That’s how televised presidential debates are won – not on facts, competence, or projected leadership.
Lower expectations for your guy. Raise expectations on their guy. “Hey, undecided voter. Have I got a candidate for you. Check him out on Wednesday night. He isn’t very well-spoken, and he does get flummoxed in pressure situations, but he is qualified, sort of, but you be the judge. The other candidate will look, sound and feel awesome because he has more experience in public debates and he is a master at the event, but hey – being President is more than a silly debate.”
Step One, you have to build up the other guy:
Sen. Harry Reid on Romney (Face The Nation): “Mitt Romney dominated 22 Republican primary debates over the past 20 months of campaigning. There is no question that he is more prepared for these debates than any person in the history of mankind. Newt Gingrich dropped out of the primary rather than face the Romney verbal juggernaut of policy depth again in a 90 minutes discussion of ideas.”
Rep. John Boehner on Obama (Meet The Press): “The only man on the stage Wednesday evening with experience in a Presidential debate is Barack Obama. He has been through the gauntlet of the debate spotlight 3 times in the past few years, so he is clearly the favorite. If you recall, he spanked John McCain pretty good. Made him cry.”
Banking lobbyist Tim Pawlenty on Obama (State of the Union): “He is the master at speaking off the cuff without a teleprompter, so we anticipate a performance that rivals some of the great orations of our generation. Henry Clay and Patrick Henry have nothing on this guy.”
Step Two, you have to lower your guy’s perceived abilities:
David Plouffe on Obama (60 Minutes): “As you know, the President is handicapped by the lack of a teleprompter at these debates, so I expect he’ll be quite tongue-tied throughout the evening. You know, he has a terrible stutter when not reading from a script. It’s a disability under the law you know.”
Chris Christie on Romney (Capital Report): “He may be too empathetic with his opponent to successfully challenge him on stage. The guy feels for others so deeply that he doesn’t want to hurt Obama by showing him up. I would not be surprised if the pressure of the moment brought Romney to tears. He’s a teddy bear in Armani.”
David Axlerod on Obama (Fox and Friends): “I think all the pressure will be on the President. You know, he’s been ill lately and that has certainly taken a toll on his energy and strength. It is very likely that the President will come across like an empty chair on Wednesday evening, but to be honest with you, we’ll be shocked if he survives the debate at all. We’ll have the best doctors we can find available just in case he collapses.”
Rep. Paul Ryan on Romney (News Hour): “It would take too long to get into the details of how bad Mitt Romney will suck on the debate stage. I won’t be expecting too much and neither should you. I’m just being honest. He’s a statue.”
Step Three, you have to keep Biden away from an open mic:
Vice President Joe Biden on Obama (local cable access news): “Should be me up there. I’m a better debater on the presidential stage than Obama. I’m obviously cleaner and more articulate. Of course, as a debater at the Vice Presidential level, I stink so don’t expect too much there.”
In the Presidential debate expectations game, the last shall be first. See you tomorrow night.