There’s a case to be made that the first presidential debate, the first of which is Wednesday, favors the challenger. That’s a reason why President Obama’s team is getting the word out on how little prep time he’s had, how skillful Mitt Romney was in the GOP debates and how green Obama is on the debate stage. It has been four years, after all. Lower expectations, then see what happens.

Ronald Reagan in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1992, John Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008 all were perceived to have won their first debates. In Reagan’s case, it was the only debate that year. While this may be attributed to skill, default or the mere fact that the challengers were elevated to a presidential platform, the Norman Lear Center’s Marty Kalan has a story in the Jewish Journal that suggests another element at work: The media’s need to keep the race competitive.

He writes, “Think of mass media as Scheherazade, and think of us, the audience, as
the Sultan. If the campaign narrative is a snooze, we’ll sentence its
storyteller to death and turn the show off; Romney-is-a-goner is totally
a ratings-killer. But if each night’s episode is a cliffhanger, we’ll
keep coming back to find out what happens next. 

“The drama of the debates isn’t the only campaign X-factor that’s
tailor-made for marketing. The two jobs reports between now and the
election will also be hyped and spun. The tens of millions that
billionaires will secretly spend late in the game will be framed as a
looming November surprise. Even if Romney persistently lags by several
points, voter suppression laws and Election Day vigilantism will inject
tension into the ending. All these are legitimate reasons — independent
of the media’s stake in a photo finish — to believe that Obama doesn’t
have it in the bag. But the hoopla surrounding the four debates is the
industry’s best opportunity to attract eyeballs, sell them to
advertisers and keep the story going down to the wire.”

That’s why it may be just as important to watching social media next Wednesday, which is gaining influence in shaping real-time perceptions of how the candidates do. The most apparent example may be Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Convention, which, in the end, was well-received in the arena but took on a life of its own on Twitter. In other words, watch the hashtags.