Romney and Obama: the great TV debate

Tonight sees the first of this year’s debates between Romney and Obama.

Before we get too excited, let us consider a few key facts:

1. Whoever’s winning the election will probably win the debate…

Debates usually reflect the existing state of the campaign rather than deciding it. President Obama is comfortably winning the election so can probably expect to win the debate.

There are exceptions to this rule however: if as in 1960 or 1976, the race is very close. Nixon’s shifty appearance and President Ford’s confusion over the USSR may have swung the race in both cases. In 2000 and 2004, Al Gore and John Kerry both easily beat Bush in the debates. Expectations were so low for Bush, however, that the debates felt like a victory for Bush who went on to win narrowly (in 2004 anyway). In 1988, Bush’s father managed to lose the first of two debates to Michael Dukakis but still won the election by a landslide.

But trust me usually the first place candidate usually wins the debate.

2. The Vice Presidential debates don’t matter 

From the 1988 Dan Quayle/Lloyd Bentsen VP debate…

Quayle: I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.

Judy Woodruff: Senator [Bentsen]?

Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy. (Prolonged shouts and applause.) What has to be done in a situation like that is to call in the — Woodruff: (Admonishing applauders) Please, please, once again you are only taking time away from your own candidate.

Quayle: That was really uncalled for, Senator. (Shouts and applause.) Bentsen: You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator — and I’m one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.

Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s “no Jack Kennedy” humiliation of Senator Dan Quayle in 1988 is probably the finest moment in any national US presidential debate ever. But it didn’t help the Dukakis/Bentsen campaign which still went down to a hefty defeat.

3. There’s always the potential for a gaffe from either side.

Nixon’s anxious scowling at JFK during the 1960 debate. President George HW Bush glancing at his watch throughout his debate with Bill Clinton. Senator Bob Dole’s foolish labelling of both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam as “Democrat wars”.

It is these potentially random factors which have the power to swing elections, which make the four yearly ritual of the televised presidential debates so compelling.

Picking the right running mate.

With the ghastly Rick Santorum out of the race, the way ahead is virtually clear for Mitt Romney to secure the Republican nomination for the US presidency. But who should Romney pick for his all important running mate?

1) Choosing a potential successor: This should, of course, be the only real reason for picking a running mate. Once the election is one the new Vice President will be literally a heartbeat away from serious power. Vice Presidents succeeded to the presidency mid-term (due to illness or resignation) five times in the 20th century alone.

2) To appease a defeated foe: Primary contests can be messy and like Jed Bartlet picking the defeated John Hoynes in The West Wing, giving the loser a place on the ticket can (in theory) help smooth things over. Thus JFK opted for the defeated LBJ in 1960 and the unsuccessful Democratic nominee John Kerry picked runner up John Edwards to run with him in 2004. It only goes so far though. A particularly vicious primary battle wrecks any chance of even feigning unity. Obama thus didn’t pick Hillary Clinton as his running mate in 2008 (although she did become Secretary of State when he won). President Gerald Ford didn’t pick his defeated primary challenger Ronald Reagan when a vacancy on the ticket arose in 1976. Likewise, when Reagan did get the nomination himself four years later he didn’t pick former President Ford as his No.2 as some had expected. Some wounds just won’t heal. For similar reasons, Romney may not pick Santorum to run with him this time. Particularly, as he’s awful.

3) To appeal to women: Outgunned by the charismatic Senator Barack Obama, the flagging Senator John McCain targeted a politically unrepresented group: women, when he picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his No.2 in a bid to revive his lacklustre 2008 campaign. It worked…at first. McCain actually led Obama as late as September. But as Governor Palin’s shortcomings became apparent, the McCain ticket was ultimately overwhelmed to the point that the choice derailed the campaign. Choosing the first ever female running mate Geraldine Ferraro similarly didn’t stop Democrat Walter Mondale losing 49 out of 50 states to President Reagan in 1984.

4) Pick someone older and wiser: The forty something Obama went for the more experienced sixty five year old Senator Joe Biden in 2008. Governor George W. Bush picked his daddy’s former Defence Secretary Dick Cheney in 2000, despite the fact he had already had four heart attacks.

5) Provide some youthful vigour: Alternatively, an older candidate may choose someone much younger to balance the ticket. The precedents for this aren’t encouraging though. Popular sixtysomething Republican candidate and war hero, General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower was ultimately harmed by his choice of the thirty-nine-year-old Richard Nixon in 1952 who was widely distrusted over his murky role in McCarthyism and a notoriously dirty 1950 California Senate campaign. Likewise, George HW Bush was damaged by his selection of the young but gaffe-prone Dan Quayle in 1988 although like Ike still managed to win the election. John McCain and the younger, inexperienced and politically maladroit Sarah Palin were not so lucky twenty years later.

6) To control them: Some suggest that having been vice president for eight years himself, George HW Bush picked Dan Quayle precisely because he felt Qwuayle was too stupid to manipulate his position to his own advantage. The Watergate-damaged President Richard Nixon is also believed to have opted for the clumsy Gerald Ford as the new VP in 1973 because he thought Ford’s appointment as the next in line made his own impeachment less likely. LBJ had once famously described Ford as being “unable to walk and fart at the same time” without falling over and Nixon reckoned Congress wouldn’t dare make Ford President. The strategy failed: Nixon had to resign in 1974 and Ford became President anyway. He twice fell over in public before leaving office in January 1977.

7) So they can control you: Twelve years after his father picked Dan Quayle, the less experienced George W. Bush requested Dick Cheney produce a list of possible running mates during 2000. Cheney came back with the answer: himself. Under Bush, the more experienced Cheney became the most powerful Vice President in US history.

8) Because mistakes do happen!: Picking the wrong running mate can be fatal. Democrat George McGovern’s heavy 1972 defeat became a certainty when he was forced to drop his first choice of running mate Thomas Eagleton after revelations emerged about his health background. Eagleton was replaced with JFK’s son-in-law (and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s future father-in-law)Sargent Shriver, but the damage had already been done. Sarah Palin may also have helped defeat the McCain campaign last time. Even when a candidate goes onto win, a Veep who is distrusted (Eisenhower’s Number Two “Tricky Dicky” Nixon or Nixon’s own Vice President Spiro Agnew who resigned over tax evasion charges in 1973) or gaffe prone (Dan Quayle, Joe Biden) can still be a source of embarrassment.

The precedents are clear: if Mitt Romney wants to win, he should choose carefully.