THE MYTH ABOUT PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES

Romney supporters are hoping he will win all three Presidential debates decisively, pass President Obama in the polls and ride that wave of momentum to the White House on November 6.  Possible?  Sure.  Likely?  History says no.  Read on to see why.

The three debates between President Obama and Mr. Romney are October 3 on domestic policy, October 16 in a town hall format and October 22 on foreign policy.  In addition, there will be one debate between Vice President Biden and Mr. Ryan on October 11 on foreign and domestic policy.  There is great anticipation surrounding these debates, particularly among Romney supporters.  They view the debates as a chance, perhaps the last chance, for their candidate to explain his policies to the voters clearly and specifically and to convince them to vote for him over President Obama.  Most political analysts on both sides have been saying that, barring an unforeseen event (e.g. the financial crisis of 2008 or another terrorist attack), the election will be decided by the debates and the turnout on Election Day.  The turnout part of the analysis is obvious; everyone would acknowledge that a high turnout would favor the Democrats.  History shows, however, that the debates, while a factor, have not been as major a factor in deciding elections as we might think.  We tend to remember famous sound bites or instances from these debates and, in hindsight, ascribe more significance to them than was the case at the time.

A few examples:

1.  The Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 was the first televised debate.   Many people remember or have heard that Kennedy “won” the debate because he was personable and charming on television whereas Nixon appeared to be”shifty,” “sweating,” “pale,” and had a 5 o’clock shadow.  Also, he was not feeling well and his general appearance was hurt by the fact that he did not use professional make-up like Kennedy.  It is important to note, however, that in 1960 many people listened to the debate on the radio, because they did not have a television.  Interestingly, it was reported that the majority of the radio listeners thought Nixon had actually won the debate.  Although this debate helped Kennedy because it enhanced his exposure to the country, it is debatable whether or not it was decisive.  It should be remembered that the race was tight before the debate and remained tight to the end.

2.  The Carter-Reagan debate in 1980 became famous for two of Mr. Reagan’s lines: “There you go again” and “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”  Mr. Reagan was very personable, at ease and entertaining.  Mr. Carter was stiff and on the defensive.  Mr. Reagan won the election going away, but was it because of the debate?  The debate performance was a contributing factor, but Stuart Spencer, Mr. Reagan’s political strategist in 1980 recollects that the momentum was already swinging Mr. Reagan’s way for two weeks prior to the debate.  The debate continued and, perhaps, accelerated it.  Also, he admits that had Iran released its hostages before the election instead of afterwards, the election results might have been different despite the debate results.  Incidentally, Stuart says Mr. Reagan won by pounding away repeatedly at a simple message: cut taxes, strong defense, fight communism, and make Americans feel good about themselves again.  Substitute “terrorrism” for “communism” and add the economy and jobs, and there’s the message Mr. Romney should be using.

3.  One of the biggest “gotcha” moments in debate history occurred during the vice presidential debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen in 1988.  Dan Quayle, a handsome, personable man with not much between the ears, was trying to compare himself to John Kennedy.  Mr. Bentsen interrupted him and said: “I served with Jack Kennedy.  I knew Jack Kennedy.  Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine.  Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”  Hilarious,  but it had no effect on the election, which was won by Bush-Quayle.

The foregoing does not auger well for Mr. Romney.  A decisive win is highly unlikely.  Most likely, the result of the debates will be inconclusive, and few people will be swayed by them.  Each side will claim his man “won,” and the other person misconstrued the facts and mislead the listeners.  In fact, many, if not most, of the very undecided voters Mr. Romney is counting on reaching will probably not even pay attention (as has been their habit all along).  Don’t forget, we are in an age of short attention spans and multiple distractions.

The analysts will line up along party lines. The voters who bother to watch will be “rooting” for their guy.  Thus, they will perceive he did better than the other guy.  They will hear what they want to hear and what reinforces their opinions.  They will tune out or discount opposing views.  In the end, unless someone commits an historic gaffe, which, given the format, the degree of preparation and the experience of the particpants is unlikely, no significant change in the polls will occur. In order to win the election, Mr. Romney will need more than a strong showing at the debates, although it would be a good start.

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