The Dramatic Arc of the 2012 Presidential Debates

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney exchange views during the second presidential debate a
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney exchange views during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Presidential debates are often likened to boxing matches, which makes sense if you view each debate as an individual event. Yet a different analogy merits consideration, particularly as we head into the final Obama-Romney showdown on Monday night. Let us think of the presidential debate cycle as a four-act play, a miniseries with a distinct beginning, middle and end. We have seen the first three acts -- now comes the denouement.

For the viewing public this has been an especially fascinating round of debates. Act One kicked off with an unexpected plot twist: the sudden deflation of the leading man and the equally sudden rise of his rival. Watching President Obama in that first debate was like watching a real-time Shakespearean tragedy, with the protagonist seeming to act out a death wish before the audience's very eyes. We may never know what was going on inside Obama's head that night in Denver, but to spectators the effect was unsettling. Here was a character Americans thought they knew. It didn't matter if you loved him or hated him, the old familiar Barack Obama appeared to have undergone a personality transplant. Over the course of 90 minutes, the collective consciousness of the entire United States coalesced around a single question: What's up with Obama?

This vacancy in the narrative provided an enormous opening to the challenger, Governor Romney, who seized his opportunity, exploited the loosely structured format, and presented a new, improved version of himself before 70 million viewers. Essentially Mitt Romney turned that first debate into an infomercial for Mitt Romney. Such an achievement would not have been possible, of course, without the help of a passive Barack Obama, who came to slay Romney and ended up as his enabler. Like several incumbent presidents before him, Obama learned the hard way that it sucks to have to step before the American people and plead for your job, standing ten feet away from some upstart competitor -- but do it you must.

When the first act curtain came down, one protagonist left the stage licking his self-lacerated wounds, while the second strode off in triumph. The story line for the 2012 debate series had found its direction: Obama needed to get better, and fast. And Romney needed to avoid overconfidence, despite his remarkable reversal of fortune.

Act Two, the vice presidential debate, functioned more as a sideshow than a main event. But what a sideshow it was. Maintaining the time-honored tradition of compulsively watchable vice presidential debates, Biden and Ryan delivered an exchange that offered something for everyone. By dominating the screen and making a substantive case, Biden ultimately triumphed over his youthful co-star. But Kid Ryan lives to debate another day.

Sticking with our theatrical analogy, Biden used his second-act platform to alter the trajectory of the plot, in a way that accrued positively to Democrats. Obama's massive stumble got lost in the chatter about malarkey, inappropriate laughter, and over-the-top facial expressions -- not to mention Paul Ryan's prodigious intake of H2O. By the end of the debate, Biden had managed to put a few chinks in the Romney armor, setting the stage for an Obama comeback.

Then came Act Three, the town hall debate. The timing of this event, thirteen days after Denver, helped Romney and hurt Obama. While Romney's first-round victory got carried along by a sustained tailwind, the president had to wait nearly two weeks for his redemption tour -- two weeks during which Republicans made significant gains.

Once it finally arrived, the third act ignited relentless dramatic tension, culminating in the moment when Romney overplayed his hand on the Benghazi incident and fell into Obama's trap. With three simple words -- "Please proceed, governor" -- the president seized the reins of the debate so forcefully that Romney never got them back. With this maneuver, Obama reassured the country that he had not lost his fighting spirit.

As the curtain descended on Act Three, Obama was up, Romney was down, and the score stood at a tie.

Which brings us to Act Four. A sense of momentousness envelops this final debate, because the stakes and expectations are equally high for both participants. The presidency remains either man's to win or lose; any misstep will be magnified accordingly. It is conceivable that Obama enters the arena overly confident and overly aggressive, the way Romney was in the town hall. And it is conceivable that Romney engages in another of his petty on-camera outbursts over some perceived violation of the rules, as he has done in the past. We know that both candidates are quite capable of errors, no matter how much they prepare against them.

The theme of Monday's debate is foreign policy, which would seem to give an edge to the more experienced Obama. But incumbency also acts as a limitation, for sitting presidents must exercise extraordinary discretion when they extemporize upon international issues. A challenger, by contrast, can say anything he wants, free from the fear of global consequences.

Monday's format calls for the debaters to be seated around a table with moderator Bob Schieffer -- the same set-up as in the final 2008 Obama-McCain match (the so-called "Joe the Plumber" debate, also moderated by Schieffer). Does this advantage one candidate over the other? In a visual sense, it levels the playing field by placing the participants closer together, more squarely in each other's camera shots. This proximity also heightens the interpersonal dynamic -- equally promising and perilous for both.

It will be interesting to see to whether the candidates attempt to build upon gains made in previous debates. Romney cannot expect another infomercial, but he would be smart to bring back the self-confident pitch-man from Act One. And Obama will want to revive the version of himself that he portrayed in the town hall, a leader in tune with his constituents and one jump ahead of his opponent. Whichever of these characters dominates on Monday night may determine the outcome of the debate, and possibly the election.