We don’t know exactly what will happen when President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney take the stage for tonight’s town hall debate at Hofstra University. There are too many unknowns in any debate -- both known knowns and known unknowns -- to call it this early. But one thing is certain: This debate will be a game-changer.
What can we expect? First of all, both candidates will have a plan to save the shrinking middle class, with policies that favor Main Street over Wall Street. Both must be careful to keep their plans within the Overton window, to avoid losing independents, while not straying too far from party ideology, which could hurt them with their bases. Romney and Obama can also be expected to stay on message in an effort to persuade non-affiliated voters in the critical swing states of Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado and -- the biggest electoral prize of 2012 -- Ohio.
The 47 percent will be an important topic tonight. We’ll have to wait and see whether Romney doubles down on his statement that he doesn’t care about Americans who don’t pay income taxes, or whether Obama makes it the subject of a devastating zinger that ends the election then and there. The danger for Romney is that if he does try to back away from his remarks, he may be accused of flip-flopping or throwing his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, under the bus.
Whichever candidate is most successful in framing the narrative is likely to win a snap poll of the electorate conducted after the debate. That, in turn, will help him win the day in the next several news cycles, throwing his opponent off message and giving him momentum that will translate into several good polling days, and may carry over into next Monday’s debate.
The real question is, do the debates even matter? Obama for America has a better ground game, while Romney has a financial advantage. The Citizens United decision threw open the floodgates for attack ads, but special interest money can’t buy boots on the ground.
In the end, only one thing is certain: this election will be decided by a razor-thin margin, as undecided voters make last-minute decisions on whether to go with their gut or vote with their pocketbooks, possibly making up their minds as late as Election Day.