However overhyped you think Tuesday's presidential debate is, the real cold hard truth is that it cannot be hyped enough. The stakes are impossibly high—not just for who gets to be the most powerful person on Earth, but also for the people who get paid to talk about the most powerful person on Earth, which is a powerful though considerably lesser position.
Just try imagining the stakes right now. Are you thinking about the stakes? They're really high, right? Like these are some of the highest stakes you've ever seen. Well scratch that. It's an optical illusion. The stakes are actually even higher. Unimaginably high stakes even in your imagination. These stakes might be so high they're overwhelming.
Well, calm down. Let us walk you through the stakes, and the people competing for those stakes, and how they're going to try to win them.
Combatant: Barack Obama
Mission: Win back the women who've been trending toward Romney in post-debate polls, calm supporters.
Strategy: Counterintuitively, Obama must play it cool, even though playing it too cool was what got him in trouble in the first debate. He must call Romney a liar, but in a nice way, The Daily Beast's James Warren reports: "Two sources close to the preparations said that the president will seek to make a string of points about his tenure and plans for the future in an upbeat fashion—while at the same time unabashedly and firmly contending that his opponent has not been telling the truth." He has to be calm about it: "Obama is so primed for a comeback that the number one piece of advice he is getting, according to a Democrat familiar with the president's debate preparation, is 'not to overreact, not to overcompensate,'" Politico's Mike Allen reports. Plus, Obama needs to bring a world-class wrecking crew. "Obama’s staff, blamed in part for his weak preparation, for a flawed plan, and for a lame post-debate effort are also seeking a do-over," BuzzFeed's Zeke Miller reports.
Stakes: The highest. Obama has been slipping in national and now swing state polls. This is because the gender gap is shrinking. "What women saw in Obama is kind of the interesting but arrogant guy that turns them off," a person "familiar" with Romney's polling told Politico.
Combatant: Mitt Romney
Mission: Don't act like having to interact with real voters is icky.
Strategy: Since it's a town-hall debate, the Los Angeles Times's Mark Barabak writes, style will matter more than substance. Romney's campaign thinks he's got the answers down cold anyway. Instead, he's working on body language, Politico reports: "Romney has been warned not to physically back away from a questioner, but to lean in as if having a one-on-one conversation that just happens to have 50 million or so eavesdroppers."
Stakes: Highish. Romney needs to show that his first debate victory wasn't a fluke, and that Americans can trust him to fix their problems.
Combatant: The campaign surrogates
Mission: Defend your team in a way that gets noticed, so you're called on to do more TV time for your team. The crowd is huge -- Obama is sending 22 surrogates this time, and Romney will send 37 -- so you have to stand out.
Strategy: Defend the candidate using phrases or verbs so unique that reporters tweet them, or, even better, use the clips on TV. At the same time, one must not come off as annoying. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has mostly excelled at zingers this year, but faltered after the first presidential debate, when he accidentally referred to "President Romney."
Stakes: Huge. Do you want to be just another politician with low name recognition meandering through the Capitol till you retire at age 1000, celebrated only by the longtime staff which had been wielding power in your doddering name? Or do you want to be the next vibrant face of your party? The crime of being annoying has already hurt at least one Obama surrogate. Obama focus groups found that Robert Gibbs was the surrogate viewers liked the most, Debbie Wasserman Schultz was the one they liked least. "Many of Obama’s advisers have quietly begun questioning whether they should have picked Wasserman Schultz, an outspoken Florida congresswoman, as his DNC chairwoman," Politico reported in August.
Combatant: The 'Everything Sucks' Caucus of the press corps.
Mission: Capture the role of most serious and reliably sober thinker writing about American politics.
Strategy: Stand aghast at the hive mind and its superficial fixations in an election in which really important policies are being neglected in favor of deconstructions of Obama's listlessness. "It's nuts that through some combination of media obsession and voter behavior (good luck distinguishing between those two -- it's the ultimate chicken and the egg conundrum) we've found ourselves in a situation where we believe the election of the next president, a process we've been engaged in for the better part of the past year, resides to a great degree on what happens over the course of a few remaining hours of television," The New Republic's Alec MacGillis writes. "TV debates give lazy voters the illusion that they've done their homework in much the same way that a student assigned a classic novel can fool himself into thinking it's enough to watch the movie," argues The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf, who wants a Gchat-only debate. "With all due respect to my colleagues in the media, I am pretty sure that most of them have, over the past week, collectively gone out of their minds," The Daily Beast's Richard Just wrote of the negative impact of Twitter on journalism. (Just does not do Twitter.)
Stakes: Low. It's easy to be the most serious person in Washington at any time of the year—just ask Paul Ryan. If you're not the most serious debate watcher, you can always be the most serious inauguration watcher, 100-day honeymoon watcher, debt limit negotiation watcher, etc.
Combatant: The media's Drama Club
Mission: The opposite of the "everything sucks" caucus -- the drama club must say this matters immensely. Members must have the most extreme reaction to debate, and make the most concrete prediction based on it -- an extremely dangerous move because you could be proven wrong in just a few weeks.
Strategy: Express your shock and horror that the debate was the most indisputably consequential moment in the presidential election for your candidate -- because he blew it. The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan had a widely-noticed freakout after the first debate. He's already previewing an eruption following tonight's that could rival the first. "The ground Obama has lost in Oct. is vast, underscored by new #s on lost female voters. Everything hinges on tonight," he tweets. Variant: Express rapturous joy at your guy's victory. WARNING: Joy must be rapturous for your reaction to get attention, since it's expected you'll be biased toward thinking your team's awesome. Example, National Review's Rich Lowry after the 2008 vice-presidential debate:
I’m sure I’m not the only male in America who, when Palin dropped her first wink, sat up a little straighter on the couch and said, “Hey, I think she just winked at me.” And her smile. By the end, when she clearly knew she was doing well, it was so sparkling it was almost mesmerizing. It sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America.
Stakes: High in the short-term, moderate in the long-term. A Drudge link to liberal panic is pageview gold. But it's merely a traffic sugar high.
Mission: Make GIFs of funny faces in the debates so that an important person retweets them and showers me with glory.
Strategy: During liveblog, one must seriously juggle like 14 different apps and streams and feeds while still noticing when Obama and Romney say or do something funny or weird.
Stakes: Impossibly high. Live GIF blogs require spending five straight hours of sitting on a sofa in a state of mild emergency.