Looking at the historical data, a few observations:
- Challengers generally do well with the public in the first debate — Kerry 53-37, Perot 74 Clinton 30 George H.W. Bush 16, Dukakis 38-29, Mondale 54-35.
- The exception that proves the rule is Dole, who was perceived as performing horribly in 1996. It seems to me that challengers have a strategic advantage in that they can propose magic ponies against an incumbent’s actual and inevitably compromised record. But Dole, a long-time Senate leader, didn’t really have that advantage, which is one reason why long-term legislative leaders generally make made presidential candidates. (That’s not the only explanation, of course — Kerry, while not a Senate leader like Dole, still had plenty of inconvenient votes to work with but won the first debate.)
- As this record suggests, being perceived as losing the first debate by a lopsided margin isn’t exactly a death blow.
- But Obama also lost with the public above and beyond any ordinary strategic disadvantage faced by a sitting president, so we have to be open to the possibility that this will have a greater impact on the race than unusual.
- And, yes, we shouldn’t forget the strategic advantages Romney gained through his willingness to lie shamelessly.