Although early voting has started in some states, the first presidential debate is tonight. While the candidates have been prepping for some time (Romney has apparently been trying out his zingers since August) the main focus has been on a campaign to lower expectations.
While it might seem odd, each party’s minions, spinions and pundits have been busy trying to craft a narrative in which their man is an inferior debater relative to his ass-kicking rhetoric-fu master opponent. Well, with the exception of Chris Christie who apparently did not get the memo regarding lowering expectations.
While some folks might be baffled by this, years of competitive running have taught me about the art of sand baggery. In the case of running, sand bagging usually occurs in the warm up run before the race and involves runners crafting a narrative of their alleged injuries, fatigue, emotional disorders and other dire obstacles to running well. In Tallahassee, the master of sand bagging is my friend Jeff. Before a race he will weave a tale of running woe that will leave one wondering how he still lives, let alone manages to run. Naturally, he always manages to run a great race (expressing shock at the miraculous recovery that made it possible). He is such a legend that when other runners sand bag well, they are accused of being graduates of Jeff’s school of sand baggery. The point of this sand bagging is, of course, to have ready made excuses in case the race goes badly. Jeff also uses it to try to get an edge in the competition: many a naive fellow has fallen victim to the sand baggery, burning themselves out thinking that they will be able to wear Jeff down.
In my naive youth, I had not heard of this sort of sandbagging, but I did have a lesson in the importance of not bragging before a competition. Before my last big college track meet, the coach had a party for the team. My arch-rival, Glenn, was (as usual) talking some smack. So, when Matt asked me how I would do in the 10K, I said “I’ll be a minute and a quarter mile ahead of Glenn.” While I was initially joking, I quickly realized that I had thrown down the gauntlet and it was, as the kids say today, on. Glenn and I were close in speed and rather devoted competitors. For example, one time we were doing mile repeats and were tied in “wins.” During the tie breaker, the area went dark as a massive lightning storm erupted in the area. While everyone else ran for shelter, we stayed on the flooding track until it ended with my victory. But it was really, really close. The coach was not happy-after all explaining to the college why we had been electrocuted probably would have been a good day for him.
So, when the 10K started, I knew I had to run an incredible race or I would be obligated to eat my words. Naturally, I ran an incredible race and beat Glenn by over a quarter mile. That hurt…a lot. Part of it was luck-I happened to have a really good day while Glenn had something of a bad day. This taught me that it is best not to talk it up before a competition and that was the last time I ever made such a bold and arrogant prediction. Now when people ask me how I think I will do, I say, “I’ll tell you at the finish.”
As might be imagined, the candidates (or their minions) know that things can go badly in a debate much as they can go wrong in an athletic competition. If their man has a cold or is otherwise off his game, he can come across badly. There can also be costly slips. As such, it is not surprising that the minions, spinions and pundits are stacking up the sand bags. This way even a merely competent performance is regarded as being better than expected.
Of course, there is a certain dishonesty and false modesty in this process. After all, Obama is clearly a charismatic debater and Romney can (provided he doesn’t make any $10,000 bets) debate quite well. As such, there probably will not be any disasters or epic victories tonight. But, of course, surprises can happen.
Interestingly, while Romney and Obama have been sand bagging, Romney’s camp has let it be known that Romney has been loading up zingers, presumably to try to create a few Reagan moments (Reagan, a master of timing and showmanship, got in some good shots) in the debate. Of course, the zinger approach does have its risks. Romney lacks the showmanship and charisma of Reagan, so he might not be able to zing effectively. There is also the risk that his pre-loaded zings will appear to be exactly what they are, namely pre-planned and practiced. Zings tend to work best when they are unscripted and the idea that Romney has been practicing zings seems to add to the idea that he is somewhat mechanical in his ways.
Obama has said that he will not be doing any zinging, which certainly matches his style. While Romney has to make an effort to appear human and likable, Obama has to avoid appearing to be arrogant and professorial (although as a professor I often wonder why that is such a bad thing).
While the debates are presented as important, apparently most voters have already made up their minds (and some are already voting). Of course, a disaster or a miracle could occur during the debates and change things-but the odds of that happening are rather low. After all, the debates are carefully planned, scripted and controlled events-more scripted theater than true competition.