Tonight's debate is not about you. It is not about me. It is not about the partisan and committed members of this blog community.
Tonight's debate is about the undecided or wavering voters. The low-information voters. The people who don't already know what we know. The people who don't already know that Mitt Romney is an inveterate liar. The people who don't already know that he is a vulture capitalist who made staggering amounts of money by preying on people like them. The people who don't already know that his political agenda would make him more staggering amounts of money by taking even more money from people like them. They don't know. That's why they are undecided or wavering voters.
While watching tonight's debate, don't react with anger when Romney lies, or with joy when President Obama tells the truth. Don't bring to your viewing all the facts and figures that you already know. Don't bring your partisanship. Don't bring your hopes and expectations. Watch tonight's debate as if this were the first time you had listened to these two men. Watch it through the eyes of the low-information, undecided or wavering voter.
The first debate was highly instructive. The most obvious example was Romney's lie that President Obama wants to cut $716 billion from Medicare, which has been debunked countless times. The first time Romney repeated that lie, which is part of his standard stump speech, President Obama explained that it wasn't true. Romney then went on to repeat the same lie nine times in the next 38 minutes. Ten times he told the same lie. The president refuted it once.
Anyone paying attention knew that Romney was just doing what he always does, which is to repeat lies no matter how large, and no matter that they have been proven lies. But that's not what the low-information voter saw. The low-information voter saw Romney hammering the president on a fundamental political issue, the president denying it once, then mostly ignoring it. The low-information voter was given to assume that Romney knew what he was talking about, and that if the president was right he would have spent more time insisting on it. That's how these debates work.
In organized, competitive debate, if you don't respond to an argument it is considered dropped, and you lose it. The facts then don't matter. And even though this is not organized, competitive debate, the same dynamic pertains. Lies can't be allowed to sit there, or be endlessly repeated without being endlessly refuted, because the low-information voter won't know that they are lies.
One of the first things competitive debaters learn is to know their judges. To observe their reactions. It doesn't matter if you are right when the judges aren't registering that you are right. Debate is about communication. You have to know your audience. You are not speaking to yourself or to people who already agree with you or who already understand what you are saying.
Political campaign debates are about reaching the people who don't know what you know. Political campaign debates are about convincing the unconvinced. Watch the debate through their eyes. It can be frustrating and infuriating, but it is the only way to assess the debate's likely impact with the only people that matter. It is not about the pundits, who will do what they do, and who rarely succeed in changing the opinions people have already made on their own. Tonight is not about political junkies like us. It is the most important moment of the entire campaign, thus far, and it is not about us.