The Presidential Debate Expectation Game

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign fundraising event in Sarasot
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign fundraising event in Sarasota, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

It's mudslinging season. The presidential election is less than seven weeks away, and the debates are less than two. So the Obama and Romney campaigns are doing what they do best: knocking their opposition. Scoring points wherever possible. Making the case that the other side just isn't fit to govern.

But the next twelve days will see an exception to this rule. From now until October 3rd, you'll hear nothing but praise from the campaigns for their opponent's rhetorical prowess. Obama might not be fit to govern, Romney will argue, but he sure can debate. Romney may not be what America needs, Obama will respond, but he's spent the past year training to give the performance of a lifetime.

Why the sudden shift? How can your opponent be bad at everything under the sun, except debating, where he's the second coming of Demosthenes?

The campaigns do this because of how the media "scores" the presidential debates. The critical question won't be which candidate sets a clearer course for our country's future, has the better command of facts, or even is more relatable. The key barometer will be who "exceeded expectations." The campaigns know this, and so they're trying to get their own expectations as low as possible and send their opponent's through the roof.

From this vantage point, the presidential debates are more like handicap racing (remember Seabiscuit?) - except that the participants get to help set their own handicaps. That's why the Romney campaign is calling President Obama, "the most gifted speaker in modern political history," and the Obama campaign says that Governor Romney is banking on "flawless performances" in the debates.

This expectation game hit its height back in 2004, when Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd called John Kerry "the best debater since Cicero." We're not there yet, but we're getting close.

What are we, the voters, supposed to do? How do we know where to set our own expectations?

The answer is that we shouldn't play the expectation game. Instead, watch the debates and see what you think. Ask yourself, who would be a better president? After all, we're looking to elect the next leader of the free world, not the guy whose staff best inflates his opponent's expectations.

In American Idol we don't vote for the contestant who exceeds our expectations. Ted Williams isn't in the Hall of Fame for hitting the ball more often than people thought he would. Michael Phelps doesn't get medals for beating his past times. The same ought to be true for the President of the United States. Performance - not expectations - matters.

So over the next two weeks, when you hear that Romney is a debating machine, or that Obama is too smooth to fail, don't listen. We're not looking for the candidate who exceeds expectations. We want the best person for the job.

For the electorate, the best way to win the expectation game is not to play.