As a follow up to my post last Friday on presidential debates and how they aren’t really debates but rather joint press conferences, with tonight being the first presidential debate between President Obama and Governor Romney, I’m going to take a look at whether the performance really even matters. As usual, the expectations game is being played by both sides ramping up their opponents debating skills while playing down their own. The talking heads will discuss, ad nauseam, what each candidate needs to do at the debate and then discuss whether the candidate met the goals after the debate. No doubt debates matter for the talking heads and the pundits. But, to the voters, to the average viewer, do they really change minds?
Sensationalism wins in today’s society. By that, I mean that one liners and zingers will determine who wins, not the substance. If either candidate nails a one liner against his opponent, that will be the sound bite played for the rest of the week. Ironically, if he bombs the zinger, that will also be the sound bite played for the week. It’s a double edged sword, to be sure.
Since 1960, there have been 9 presidential elections with debates (1964, 1968 and 1972, no debates were held). A 2008 Gallup poll showed that in only 2 of those debates, 1960 and 2000, the performance of the candidates had a substantial impact on how the voters viewed them. The 1960 debate between then Senator Kennedy and then Vice President Nixon, was an outlier. People listening on the radio thought that Vice President Nixon won the debate. People watching on television thought the opposite. Vice President Nixon was a gifted debater and public speaker. However, just prior to the debate, Vice President Nixon was hospitalized and was still very ill which required loads of makeup which, mixed with perspiration, created a very unappealing look. Senator Kennedy appeared calm, cool and collected. This debate is why many agree that television forever changed the presidency.
So, what happens in presidential debates is not likely to sway an undecided voter one way or the other and certainly will not bring someone to the other side. The one thing we can take from the Gallup poll is that, in close races, such as we have now, debates may play a roll in igniting a change in voter favor of either candidate. The 2000 presidential election was very close and then Governor Bush was able to use the debates as a launching pad to victory. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Vice President Gore came off rather unlikable. Nevertheless, debates do little as, in their present form, they aren’t really debates. But, I’m sure we’ll all have plenty to discuss after tonight.