Tonight’s debate is all about Barack Obama.
The storyline is oft repeated at this point. The president was not on his game at the first debate. He didn’t challenge Mitt Romney on the facts. And, he opened a door to the very idea that Romney could be president.
But scratch that story and this truth remains: Before the last debate the United States was a country divided. Divided over the choice ahead. Divided by views about economics, party and philosophy. Divided over a vision of what the next four years will look like.
That division is projected into voter thinking about the election. The polls have steadily reflected that: Obama was up by a couple, Romney ahead by a point, and then a tie. But nearly every poll is reported without considering the margin of error. Add that factor into the equation and Obama is leading. Or Romney. Or a tie. The most recent Real Clear Politics poll captures this better than most, showing Romney at 47.4 percent and Obama at 47.1 percent – a spread of three-tenths of a point; a split smaller than the number of voters from Indian country.
Indian Country Today Media Network will be covering tonight’s debate live starting at 8 pm Eastern.
So will anything tonight change the basic premise? Is there anything that Obama can say that will bridge the deep divide? Or, conversely, can Mitt Romney make the case that the 47.3 percent should reject their own ideas, picking the Republican presidential candidate even while rejecting that party’s leadership in Congress?
Think about Congress in this context. Only 8 percent of those polled think Congress is doing a good job. Yet when forced to decide between Democrats and Republicans the polling shows another near equal divide, 45.4 percent to 44.4 percent.
It’s even funny that presidential polling is now stuck at 47 percent and change. The 47-percenters, the takers, are those folks that Romney dismissed as voters who would opt for this president no matter what. He’s now stepped back from what he said behind closed doors, he now says he was inarticulate.
Tonight’s Town Hall format is designed to sway the undecided voter. The Gallup polling organization has screened and selected 80 people to represent those Americans who have not made up their mind. They want a decision. Soon. They want to see the polls show 50. Actually 50, plus one. They want a debate that lures enough voters into a majority.
But this election might not even be about winning a real governing majority. It might come down to the base idea of making sure your 47 percent shows up at the polls (whichever that 47 percent is). Those who are undecided can just stay home. It would even be better if the other sides stays home, too, one reason why there is so much concern from both Team Obama and Team Romney about which polls to believe. It matters who’s supposed to be winning because at the last possible moment some might vote for the candidate they think will win.
Of course that’s why Democrats want Obama to show up tonight. They want their guy to challenge Romney on every point. They want him to remind voters why they should take the time to vote. (Early, if possible.)
Romney’s mission is a bit different. He’d like to build on the narrative from the last debate. He wants people to see him as president and imagine what that would be like. Forget ideology. Forget the divisions. (And, better yet, forget Congress.) Imagine.
But there is still a choice to be made. On the economy, Romney offers what should be a contradictory promise: Creating jobs while dramatically cutting the federal budget (resulting in tens-of-thousands of federal workers losing their jobs). And Obama promises his own contradictory track, continued federal investments in some programs while beginning his own version of government austerity. It’s the same on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Each side proposes solutions that include contradictions. Yet the divisions matter because there has to be a direction picked. Only then can you smooth out what seem to be big holes in the logic.
Of course on some issues, such as abortion rights, the divide is clear and free of those pesky details about policy. Obama fundamentally believes that women, not government, should make their own decisions about health care and abortion. Romney is firmly, well never mind, but Ryan is firmly anti-abortion rights.
So in a country so divided can one debate sway? Is there a statement, one grabber, that is convincing? Or in the end will the divisions that were present before the Town Hall remain?
Obama is the story tonight because of the last debate and, political divisions aside, Americans do like stories.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.