The first presidential debate is tonight, and one of the few things we can be sure of is this: After it, news analysts will declare that neither candidate threw a "knockout punch."
One pundit will say that President Barack Obama's failure to deliver a knockout punch made Gov. Mitt Romney the winner of the debate, because Romney showed that he could stand toe-to-toe with the president without going down. Another will say that Romney's failure to deliver a knockout punch may have been fatal to his hopes of capturing the White House, since Obama emerged with his aura of authority intact.
But what would a knockout punch even look like?
If Obama were to make such a cogent case against Romney's tax plan that the governor conceded, "Gee, I guess Barack is right. I guess it would be a disaster for pretty much everybody except me" -- that would be a knockout punch.
If Romney were to marshal the relevant evidence about the economy so persuasively that Obama could only reply, "You know, Mitt, when you lay it out like that, I have to admit that I really sort of am a socialist" -- that, too, would be a knockout punch.
Neither of these seems likely.
The hunger for a knockout punch often leads analysts astray, disposing them to find great significance in moments that have little. If you're old enough, you probably remember how excited pundits were after Ronald Reagan shook his head and said, "There you go again," in response to an assertion by President Jimmy Carter in their 1980 debate. (Fewer people remember that Carter's assertion -- that Reagan had begun his political career as a campaigner against Medicare -- was perfectly accurate.)
Even more strangely, commentators may seize upon the body language or demeanor of one of the candidates, finding it to be tremendously revealing. Think of the moment when George H.W. Bush looked at his wristwatch during a Town Hall-style debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992. Somehow this was said to demonstrate that Bush wasn't interested in the problems of the ordinary Americans who were asking the questions that night.
Or one thinks of a debate four years earlier in which Michael Dukakis was asked whether he would abandon his opposition to the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. After Dukakis replied that he would continue to oppose the death penalty even then, many commentators were shocked -- not by the content of his answer, but by his calm and even tone. Evidently they would have preferred it if he had met the question with a show of rage, as if they somehow believed that a hot temper would be a good qualification for the presidency.
Moments like this mean nothing in terms of showing us which candidate has displayed more fitness for the presidency. But after TV analysts have spent a news cycle talking about them, they seem to mean everything.
When commentators go on about knockout punches, they're misunderstanding their job. It's not to act like judges on "American Idol," telling us which candidate was the more charismatic and which had the better zingers. Their job is to tell us whether the candidates' arguments were factual, whether they accurately represented their records and their positions, whether they accurately represented those of their opponent.
About questions like these, the viewing audience can use some help. We don't need any help determining whose jokes were better -- we can decide that for ourselves.
Brian Morton directs the creative writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and is the author of "Starting Out in the Evening" and other novels.