WASHINGTON -- If Mitt Romney is going to change the trajectory of a
close race that is bending in President Obama's direction, his best
opportunity will be during 90 minutes on a Denver stage Wednesday night.
has opened a modest advantage over Romney since the political
conventions ended last month, especially in the battleground states. But
as the presidential rivals prepare to face off in the first of three
debates, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll shows Obama with vulnerabilities and
Romney with assets - even on the question of whether Americans have
become too dependent on the government.
MORE: Your Right, Your Vote: Debate watch parties planned
The question: Can the
Republican challenger seize on those openings? If he fails - and he
admittedly has struggled since clinching the GOP nomination in the
spring - his path to victory over the final four weeks of the campaign
becomes much steeper.
"The vast majority of viewers tune in to
these debates to cheer their candidate on; they've made their decision
and want that decision confirmed," says Mitchell McKinney, an associate
professor at the University of Missouri who studies presidential debates
and political communication. But there also will be viewers who are
only "weakly committed" to a candidate "and still need some persuading."
eight in 10 Americans in the USA TODAY poll say there's nothing either
candidate could say or do in the debates that would change their minds
about their vote. Still, one of five say the debates could sway them -
including 24% of Obama supporters and 18% of Romney supporters.
Those "persuadable" voters call for more specifics, less
rhetoric and fewer attacks. "Act more like four years ago," one
respondent said in response to an open-ended question included in the
survey. Others who are leaning to Romney but open to Obama's case cited
particular issues, from doing more on the environment to saving the
coal industry. And a tall order: "Come up with all the answers for all
debates are a chance for Obama to win back the vote of Elizabeth Gower,
49, of Tacoma, Wash. "Four years ago, my husband and I voted for Obama,
and I think it was awesome that he got elected," she said in a
follow-up interview with USA TODAY. "But as far as I'm concerned, he's
blown it." She worries that the Affordable Care Act the president signed
into law may subject her family to fines because they don't have health
insurance and can't afford to buy it. She'd like to hear him on that.
who were leaning to Obama but open to hearing from Romney volunteered
that Romney should show that he would focus on the concerns of people
like them. "He needs to help the middle class instead of keep helping
the rich," one said in the survey. Several said they'd like to hear not
only that he would repeal the health care law but also what he would do
in its stead. "Just say what he would do as president," one advised.
OK that he was a businessman and very wealthy, but I think he should be
honest and open about that," Paul Rayman, 24, the operations manager at
a distribution center in Indianapolis, said in a follow-up interview.
He was put off by Romney's comment at a campaign event that students who
can't afford college should borrow money from their parents. "That was
really laughable for a lot of people," Rayman says, and as he sees it, a
sign Romney doesn't understand the tough economic times many face.
"He needs to say he would in office seek out the opinions of others on how to address those concerns and understand," he says.
there's that damaging "47%" video. For weeks, Romney has been forced to
spend time and air ads aimed at repairing damage from comments he made
on a secretly taped video at a fundraiser in May, posted online by the
liberal Mother Jones magazine. In them, he described 47% of
Americans as "victims" who are dependent on government and unwilling to
take responsibility for their lives. Obama jumped on the comments as
harsh, inaccurate and unpresidential.
the negative fallout, Romney's general point resonates with many
voters. By 2-1, 64%-33%, those surveyed agree that Americans are too
dependent on the federal government. A solid majority, 57%, say the
government is trying to do too many things that should be left to
individuals and businesses. One-third, 34%, think the government should
do more to solve the country's problems.
Romney's weaknesses on
other fronts has made it difficult for him to tap that support for a
less expensive and less intrusive government. His favorable-unfavorable
rating is an anemic 47%-48%. The biggest personal shortcoming found in
the survey is the belief that he doesn't understand the problems
Americans face in their lives.
One critical task for him is to convince them that he does.
the same time, he needs to be on the attack against Obama. "He has to
make the case that the president's policies are directly responsible for
the bad economy," says Brett O'Donnell, a Republican consultant who
advised Romney during some of the GOP primaries. "He's got to stay on
offense throughout the entirety of the debate."
Why they're undecided
Americans surveyed like Obama. His favorable-unfavorable rating is
55%-44%, his best standing this year. By 20 percentage points, they say
he understands better than Romney the challenges of their lives. By
smaller margins, they say he is more likely to share their values, to be
a strong leader, and to keep his campaign promises - all assets in a
But when it comes to handling the issue they
see as most important - the economy - they remain unconvinced Obama is
up to the job. A majority of those surveyed, 52%, predict the U.S.
economy won't be better in four years if he wins a second term; 40% say
it will be worse.
Romney continues to have an edge when it comes
to managing the economy - albeit a smaller one than he had before months
of Democratic ads attacking his record at Bain Capital - and on
handling the federal budget deficit. If he is elected, 50% of those
surveyed predict the U.S. economy will be better in four years; 35% say
it will be worse.
John Davis, 69, a retired chef from Reading,
Pa., is an undecided voter because of his mixed views of both
candidates. "I want to hear some kind of positive answer of how they're
going to bring our country back together again," says Davis, who was
called in the poll. "Romney sounds good on the economy, but he seems a
little lean on diplomatic issues, foreign policy issues. Obama sounds
good on foreign policy, but he's lousy with our economics. So I'm still
up in the air."
Obama has a 26-point advantage when it comes to
handling social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, and a
significant one on foreign affairs and handling terrorism. On health
care, energy, Medicare and taxes, his edge over his challenger is in
His approval rating has risen to 51%, the first
time a majority of Americans have approved of the job he's doing as
president since the brief boost he got after the killing of Osama bin
Laden last year. In the poll, the president's narrow lead nationwide
expands a bit in the 12 swing states but is still in single digits. (The
swing states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire,
New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and
If Romney needs to use the debates to convince voters
he understands their lives, Obama's task is to convince them he can be
trusted to make those lives better.
"With an incumbent president
in a debate, the principle question is: Should you be re-elected? Do you
deserve four more years?" McKinney says. "Obama has to go beyond his
message of 'it could be worse.' He needs to try to resurrect some of the
'hope' message that it will get better."
What history has shown
Debates can be powerful.
of the past 13 presidential elections have included televised debates.
In three of them (1960, 1980 and 2000), the eventual winner went into
the first debate trailing in the Gallup Poll and came out of the last
one ahead. In two more (1976 and 2004), the eventual winner lost
significant ground during the debates. That opened an opportunity for
the underdog in the campaign's final days, although in the end it didn't
change the outcome.
Debates can't take a runaway race and make it
a contest. In 1984 and 1996, popular incumbents Ronald Reagan and Bill
Clinton swept to easy victories over Walter Mondale and Bob Dole. In
2008, the nation's financial collapse, not the debates, defined the
campaign's final weeks and contributed to Obama's victory over John
When the contest is relatively close, especially if one of
the candidates isn't well-known, the debates can narrow a race or even
Consider the impact in two of the three most recent elections:
In 2000, Al Gore went into the first of three debates leading George
W. Bush by 8 points. After faceoffs in which his demeanor, his
exaggerated sighs and even his makeup drew criticism, Gore trailed Bush
by 4 points after the last one. Gore ended up narrowly winning the
popular vote but losing the Electoral College, a split decision that
presumably would have been avoided with a wider lead.
The lead in
the race also switched after the debates in 1960 and 1980, two contests
with iconic debates. John Kennedy's appeal over a pale, sweaty Richard
Nixon in 1960 stands as an object lesson for politicians in the
television age. In 1980, Ronald Reagan's reassuring mien in his only
debate with then-president Jimmy Carter - and his closing "are you
better off?" query to voters - gave him a crucial boost.
In 2004, John Kerry went into the first of three debates trailing
Bush by 11 points; he came out of the last one 3 points behind. Kerry
failed to get it closer. On Election Day, Bush won a second term by 3
This time, Americans by 57%-33% expect Obama to do a
better job in the debates. Even 17% of Romney voters predict Obama will
prevail; just 2% of Obama supporters expect Romney to do better.
Elmendorf, a Democratic veteran who was Kerry's deputy campaign
manager, sees parallels this time with the 2004 race and calls the
debates critical. "There is a very small group of undecideds in this
election, and maybe they won't watch all the debates," he says. "But my
guess is their opinions will be moved by the debates.
"Romney is behind, and he needs to change the dynamic. His next opportunity, his last opportunity, is these debates."