In my experience, presidential debates don’t matter. By normal standards, the Democrats tend to win these debates, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Did Al Gore wipe the floor with George W. Bush? Yes, almost as decisively as John Kerry did four years later. Neither of them saw any benefit in the polls. Al Gore actually lost ground. But, you might ask, maybe we shouldn’t use objective standards of debate. Maybe debates matter even if they aren’t judged according to who knew their stuff and who communicated more effectively. Even if it’s just a matter of who came off as more likable, that still matters, right?

I suppose it could. But there is very little evidence that it ever has. Gerald Ford’s blunder about Poland didn’t stop Jimmy Carter’s dramatic slide. Lloyd Bentsen’s triumph over Dan Quayle didn’t make him the next vice-president. Sarah Palin’s bizarre winking performance didn’t cause McCain’s numbers to collapse. Unless a candidate freezes up like Rick Perry did this past spring, I don’t see the debates changing anything.

That said, Romney needs to be more personable and he needs to convince people to trust him. And the debates are his last chance to do those things.

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