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Dead-heat heightens the stakes of the 2012 Presidential Debates

The first official presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama took place on October 3, 2012. According to Real Clear Politics, which takes an aggregate of the most-recognized and accurate national polls such as Gallup and CBS News, Obama entered the debate with a 3.1 percent lead over Romney in the race for the presidency – 49.1 percent to 46 percent. His lead, in fact, had been steadily increasing since early September, when the two candidates were essentially tied.

Obama’s performance in the first debate was heavily criticized by Republicans, Democrats, strategists and – most importantly – undecided voters alike. A CBS News poll conducted immediately following the debate found 46 percent of undecided voters believed Romney had won the debate, while just 22 percent gave the edge to President Obama. Still, this was just a single debate in a presidential campaign that has featured billions of dollars worth of vicious attack ads and, perhaps more importantly, two candidates with strikingly different visions for the direction in which the country should be headed.

Despite the yin-and-yang status of the two choices for the presidency, and the constant barrage of vicious television commercials, it was this single debate that decisively changed the state of the race. Dating back to November 2011, Real Clear Politics has had Obama ahead or tied in the polls with Romney every single day – not once did Romney have an overall advantage of even a tenth of a percentage point. On October 10, 2012 – a week after the debate – Romney had a 1.5 percent lead over Obama, and it was growing by the day.

Presidential debates remain as powerful and unnervingly crucial to a candidate’s standing as they were 62 years ago, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon engaged in the first-ever televised debate in 1960. It was Nixon’s awkward gestures and off-putting facial expressions in the midst of argument that led to the fading of his frontrunner status; similarly, Obama’s passivity – both in his speech and presence – was unfortunately contrasted with Romney’s aggressive demeanor, and Obama is still reaping the consequences.

Since that game-changing first debate, Obama and Romney have sparred twice more, and Vice President Joe Biden and Romney’s running-mate Paul Ryan have also squared off. In all three contests, the Obama ticket won – though to varying degrees. For the vice-presidential debate, which occurred on October 11, undecided voters gave Biden a huge 24 percent edge over Ryan according to CBS News.

Five days later, Obama and Romney re-matched in a brutal town hall-style debate, and Obama bounced back with 37 percent giving him the win, as opposed to 30 percent for Romney. It has now been a week since this debate, and Romney stands with a 0.6 percent lead according to Real Clear Politics. The decisive victory in the minor vice-presidential debate and the marginal win in the second presidential debate gave Obama a bounce, albeit a miniscule one compared to Romney’s earlier boost.

A few things should be noted in an election that seems to be, at least now, incredibly dependent on debate performance. According to The New York Times, challengers to the incumbent have been receiving major boosts in the first presidential debates dating back to 1980. Ronald Reagan, in 1980, turned a 1.4 percent deficit to Jimmy Carter into a lead of the same size. George W. Bush entered the first 2000 debate against Al Gore nearly two points behind, and after the debate, he had a 1.4 percent lead. The next election, John Kerry cut his trailing to Bush by more than half, with Bush’s lead shrinking from 5.4 percent to 2.4 percent.

Debates have been transformative for American presidential elections for decades, and this year is no exception. Romney was able to stop Obama’s building momentum by simply going after him, and while Obama recovered in his second debate, he couldn’t undo the damage of Romney’s earlier domination.

This election, as of today, is stunningly close especially compared to where the polls were in the past few elections. Real Clear Politics’ aggregate had Obama beating John McCain by 7.5 points on October 23, 2008, and had George Bush ahead of John Kerry by 2.7 points on the same day in 2004. Romney’s 0.7 point lead, comparatively, appears almost irrelevant.

The night of October 22 marked the final debate between Obama and Romney, and over the next week the country will watch the polls shift – or not shift – as Election Day draws closer. Obama had a night comparable to Romney’s in the opening debate. CBS News’ post-debate poll gave Obama a massive 30 point edge – 53 percent of undecided voters believed Obama won, and only 23 percent named Romney the victor.

These reactionary polls have been reflected rather accurately in general election polls that have followed the debates. If this trend continues, Obama should receive a major boost. It is worth mentioning, however, that the third debate focused exclusively on foreign policy – an issue undecided voters have put secondary to the economy – and that it was easily the least-watched of the three presidential debates.

Without question, the attention on these debates has been unusually heightened. As noted above, this is an unusually close election where any significant moment could help to decide it. In 2008, after the rapid rise and fall of Sarah Palin, Obama coasted to victory – in their debates, there was less at stake.

As it comes down to the final weeks, questions surrounding the outcome start and end with the debates. Can Obama recover from the opening debate catastrophe? Will he receive a bump comparable to Mitt Romney after decisively coming out on top in the final debate? Now that the arguing has officially come to an end, the American public can only wait and see.

Information from this article was taken from CBS News, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and RealClearPolitics.com.