Do presidential debates make a difference?








I doubt it.

I know that sounds undemocratic of me because the American political system is based on the myth that elections are decided by informed voters who study the issues and cast their votes accordingly.

But I think the best analogy for presidential debates is football.

If you’ve ever been to a major collegiate football game, you know what I mean.

Who goes to those games?

Die-hard fans.

They take their seats on opposite sides of the stadium and root for their teams.  Even if their boys are taking a stomping, they don’t switch sides. If the opposing quarterback throws an eighty-yard strike and hits his man on a dead run into the end zone, the fans for the other team don’t say, “Man, that was a great throw.”  Instead they say, “We’ll get them the next time we get the ball.”

If one team gets trounced (I didn’t mention Arkansas), week after week for a whole season, the fans say, “There is always next year.”  That’s right after they fire that coach and get a new one, a better looking one with magic in his bones.

To bring it back to the presidential debates, let’s think about what we will see.  Both candidates have been studying and preparing for weeks.

This is like what happens when I prepare a client for a deposition or to testify in court.  I’ve done it hundreds of times. I call the client in and we practice.  I tell them what questions he will have to field.  I act out the role of the opposing attorney and cross-examine him.

It is highly unlikely that either candidate will get a question he hasn’t answered in mock debates already.  Sure, there may be a trick play or two.  Something like: “How much does a loaf of bread cost?”  But if the candidate fumbles something like that, it won’t have any major impact on how people feel about him.

Actually, the only person who wants to debate is the under dog.  He has nothing to lose and at least a little to gain.  The front runner can only lose a little ground and probably won’t gain an inch.

The only reason that the debates could make a difference would be if the slight sliver of undecided voters in key swing states watched them with a view towards allowing the performance of the candidates in the debates to cinch the deal for them.  There may be a few such people watching, but not many.

When it comes right down to it, those undecided voters are much more susceptible to the messages they will see on polished campaign ads than in the debates.  When you couple this with the fact that early voting is already underway and many Americans have cast their votes before any presidential debates, you can see the minor impact the debates could produce.

So why do we have presidential debates?  Is there a better procedure to balance the respective strengths and weaknesses of the candidates? Is the timing of the debates so late in the election cycle one reason they can’t make a difference?  What do you think?


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  • Won’t influence me. I haven’t watched a debate since Bush/Perot/Clinton. The only thing I remember from that one is that Bush looked at his watch.
    I wonder if there really are any undecideds out there.

  • I, like you, believe that those who vote have already made up their minds and watch the debates to merely cheer their candidates on. They only see the good points in their man and pick apart the bad moments from the opposition. Besides, these are not debates in the truest sense of the words. They are little more than candidates trading catch phrases from their brochure copy.

  • Jack Durish

    Some debates have made a difference. Reagan vs. Carter made a big difference. Kennedy vs. Nixon was interesting; it’s generally accepted that Kennedy won those who watched them on TV and Nixon won with those who listened on radio. In the end, Kennedy sort of won the election because of fraud. Nixon, of all people, conceded the contest to avoid putting the nation through the agony of questioning its election processes. (Compare that to Bush vs Gore) Right now the polls put Obama slightly ahead in the race. (Of course, the pollsters aren’t asking military service men and women for their opinion – I wonder if there’s enough of them to throw the election to Romney – they sure aren’t voting for Obama – Remember, the Army won Lincoln’s second election for him)

    Yes, I’ll be watching. Not to see Romney vs Obama. Anyone who watched Obama vs McCain at the Saddleback Valley Church debate in 20088, knows that Obama is at a serious disadvantage (that’s the only debate that was fairly moderated). He has no principles to base his answers upon and stutters as he tries to figure out what is the most “political” answer. No, it will be Romney vs The Moderator. Hopefully, Romney has learned that he has to take control away from the moderator when he or she begins asking “leading” questions. He didn’t do so well in the Republican debates (actually, none of them did – the moderators won every time).

    • Interesting perspective, Jack. I agree that Romney’s best strategy is to be aggressive and try to take control of the proceedings. Any other approach will result in a ho-hum debate that will probably favor Obama. Of course, the danger with taking an aggressive posture is that it is more susceptible to gaffes. But the debates are an all or nothing opportunity for Romney, so he really has nothing to lose.

  • I wish there were something that could/would make a difference, but spontaneous interaction seems to have left just a tad after the Dodo bird. Strange that particular extinct name should come up in this moment.

    • I can assure you that spontaneity is not high on either candidate’s list. It’s all about staying on message.

  • I think it’s a dog and pony show.

    • Stephen Woodfin

      How about an elephant and a donkey?

  • I think your football analogy works to a certain extent. Directly I don’t think the debate will have much effect on changing minds. The real change I think comes from the residual benefit of whatever spin is generated in the media. Whatever sound bytes, positive or negative, can be driven into the minds of the populace might start swaying voters.

    • Arlee, I agree. Now that we have seen the first debate, I think the Romney camp will try its best to generate as much momentum from it as possible in the interim before round two. The long and short of it, however, is that it will be the targeted ads in the swing states that persuade the handful of undecideds that still remain. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my post. SW

  • I too just blogged about the debate as seen from Europe. I’m sure you’re right, Stephen, it won’t make much difference in the end and perhaps the debates come in too late in the game to sway voters. Though I’m not sure everyone’s decided yet, there are still 5 more weeks to go!

    But what I really like about the debates in America are their numbers, 4 in all (counting the VPs) and their length: 90 minutes. This is really nice, you get to know the contenders. Of course, everyone knows Obama, but not Romney, nor do we know how they interact when they’reface to face and that’s what’s so fascinating…I wish we had the same in Europe (the maximum you get is one debate, e.g. in France and it doesn’t last 90 minutes!) Our political class is still too often far away from us, and that’s not good for democracy!

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