Do presidential debates make a difference?
October 3, 2012
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?
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?