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This blog offers an international look at the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Indeed, campaigners worldwide are fascinated with American election campaigns. We observe relentless paid television advertising, straight-forward attack spots, sophisticated targeting and record-breaking fundraising. One cannot – and should not – simply copy paste American campaign techniques. However, campaigners out there in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia can get a lot of inspiration and specific takeaways from the most professional campaign in the world. This is the purpose of this blog.

Joe Biden vs. Paul Ryan: Analysis of the vice presidential debate

After his strong appearance in the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney sailed on his momentum throughout the week. According to the last polls, he managed to gain the lead in a few of the national as well as some state-wide polls in swing states. With the vice presidential debate as the next big event on this year’s election-calendar, it was up to Vice President Joe Biden to make up for lost ground and halt Romney’s momentum. For Ryan on the other hand, yesterday’s debate marked the biggest event of his political career and a unique opportunity to introduce himself on the national stage. Much was at stake for both combatants and they were sure to fight fiercely. And so they did from the beginning, talking over each other and interrupting while the other was speaking.

While the vice-presidential debates win quite some attention, they have less of an impact on the election than the presidential debates do. Strategically speaking, the debate is not really about Biden and Ryan, but about Obama and Romney. The job is to defend the number one and to attack the number one of the other ticket.

Most voters have made up their minds and only a few percentage of the electorate remains undecided. In such a situation, the main goal is to excite the base. After observing both Ryan as well as Biden, I think that both have done that quite effectively. The Republicans are glad that Ryan took an unapologetic stand on classical GOP issues such as tax cuts or abortion. Democrats on the other hand were happy to see Biden accusing Ryan for the Republican plan of privatizing health care or attacking him on the 47%-Comment made by Romney.

Analysis of the first presidential debate: 1:0 for Romney

Mitt Romney has won the first debate. On that, I agree with the first round of the so-called instant polls and the opinion of various pundits. 

In my blog yesterday, I discussed the necessity for Romney to change the dynamics of his campaign by being aggressive and going on the offense. And he pulled it off. Romney was better prepared, appeared more confident and seemed to enjoy himself up on the podium. In fact, he was even able to show a human side by interacting with the moderator, being humorous and using several personal stories to make his case. Clearly, the strategic decision to invest several days of Romney’s precious time into debate preparation has paid off. The President, on the other hand, gave a tired and weary impression. He didn’t capitalize on several of Romney’s weaknesses such as the comment about the 47% or his background as an investment banker. The reason for this is probably that he didn’t want to give Romney a chance to rebut the attacks directly. 

Then again, topic-wise this was the most challenging debate for Obama. The economy is indeed not going well in the USA and it is happening on Obama’s watch. The duel on October 16 will be held in a “town hall” format where the questions for the candidates come from the audience and Obama can benefit from his likeability and his street credibility. The last debate finally will cover foreign politics. While this is not an easy topic for Obama either, it’s still friendlier terrain than jobs and the economy.

I suspect Obama’s small lead in national polls to disappear over the next few days. Then, it will probably remain a very close race up until Election Day. By the way, with 20 million tweets, last night’s debate is the most tweeted about event in U.S. election campaign history.

Debate preview: Form and substance will decide on win or lose

Tomorrow, the first presidential debate will be held at the University of Denver in the swing state of Colorado. This is an important rendez-vous between the candidates and the voters. Last election, around 50 million Americans tuned in to watch one of the debates. In addition to that, the debates usually dominate the news cycle for the next few days. Every critical word and every blunder will be repeated over and over again in newspapers and on television. Voters like debates because it’s a rare opportunity to see the two candidates next to each, which allows direct comparison. After all, election campaigns are about showing contrast. If there is no difference between candidate A and candidate B, why bother to vote?

With this being said, it is of no surprise that Obama and Romney take debate preparation very seriously. Gone are the days when Richard Nixon entered a debate tired from a day of campaigning and completely unprepared, and lost to John F. Kennedy. Nowadays, both candidates invest several days of precious time into training, where a party colleague is usually playing the opponent. Both campaigns usually build the entire podium exactly as it will be in reality in order to get used to the setting. 

I am convinced that in the end, both form and substance decide on who wins or loses. A candidate has to be very careful what he says, but he also has to consider how he says it. Incidents like when George H. W. Bush kept checking his watch in 1992 do not leave a good impression with the public. As another example, Al Gore came across as arrogant in 2000. 

As part of the debate preparation, it is important for each campaign to come up with a strategy what it wants to achieve with the debate. With Mitt Romney lagging behind in the polls, nationwide and in most important swing states, it is clear that he will have to take an offensive stand in the debate. He has to shake things up and change the dynamics of the campaign. Obama, on the other hand, can concentrate for a good part on avoiding major mistakes and selling his record. 

In the last few days, both campaigns have also been busy playing the “expectations game” praising the abilities of the opposite candidate. By doing this, the campaigns try to lower the expectations for the performance of their candidate. This way, it is easier for the candidate to exceed expectations and it’s more likely that he will be declared the winner of the debate. It was the team of George W. Bush in 2000 which started this. After days of downplaying expectations, it was already considered a victory that Bush simply survived the debate against Al Gore. In this year’s race, both campaigns remember that lesson. Indeed, one hears Obama’s people calling Romney “quick, polished and ready to punch against the president” and Romney describing Obama as a “uniquely gifted speaker”. 

All things considered, evidence shows that challenger candidates usually have a slight advantage over the incumbent in the first debate because they are being taken more serious by the public than ever before. It remains to be seen whether Romney will be able to benefit fully from this advantage. I think that debates are actually better suited to show that a candidate is knowledgeable and ready for the job. But that’s not really Romney’s problem. It is much harder to use debates to make a candidate more likeable, which is what Romney urgently needs to achieve among other things. 

When it’s all said and done, one should not over-estimate the debates either. After all, it is back in 1980 – more than 30 years ago – when a debate has arguably changed the outcome of the election. Most of time, the debates solidify what voters think and feel about the candidates already.