Debating the Debates

Will tomorrow's debate have any effect on the upcoming election? Robert David Sullivan previews the contest between President Obama and Governor Romney in this special Web only feature:

The conventional wisdom is that this year’s three presidential debates, the first of which airs on October 3, are Mitt Romney’s best chance at a “game changer” that erases President Barack Obama’s small but persistent lead in the polls. “Romney’s bid to become the next president could come down to a few hours onstage on Wednesday night,” writes Nancy Cook of the National Journal. “This whole race is going to turn upside down come Thursday morning,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Romney supporter, told CBS News on Sunday, in remarks probably not cleared with the Romney campaign.


This kind of hype drives most political scientists crazy. They argue that there’s little evidence of presidential debates changing many voters’ minds, and the small number of undecided voters in this year’s campaign are unlikely to watch the debates anyway. In the current issue of the Washington Monthly, John Sides of George Washington University argues that “you can accurately predict where the race will stand after the debates by knowing the state of the race before the debates” and that the most praised debate performances—including John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Ronald Reagan in 1980—merely “nudged” the polls further in the direction they were already heading.

Still, the debates may have an effect even without causing sudden shifts in voter preference. Both major candidates promote debate-watching parties on their campaign Web sites, suggesting that they view the events as morale boosters for their supporters. A strong debate performance—and both sides will be able to find moments in the evening that constitute a “win”—can fire up the volunteers who actually work the phones and go door-to-door in search of persuadable voters. If strong supporters are energized by their candidate’s performance, they might send in contributions or go out to cast early votes. (In 19 states, including bellwether Ohio, any registered voter will already be able to make his or her choice by the morning after the debate, either in person or through a “no excuse needed” absentee ballot.) A strong performance may also lock in voters who were leaning toward one candidate but still had doubts; one theory is that Reagan’s confidence in debating Jimmy Carter in 1980 didn’t change minds as much as reassure voters who were already itching to vote for him.

If debates by themselves don’t change voter preferences, there’s still the matter of their affect on the “narrative” of the campaign. The Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza, a pretty good stand-in for the pundit class as a whole, has mostly come around to the John Sides way of thinking, but he still writes that “A mediocre or poor showing will reinforce the idea that Romney is a struggling candidate.” (Is that a threat or a promise?) In turn, this kind of verdict may determine the long-term reputation of its participants. It’s a matter of dispute whether the four Kennedy-Nixon debates were actually a significant factor in Richard Nixon’s defeat in 1960. But the oft-told story, not backed up by much evidence, of how Nixon’s sweaty brow and five o’clock shadow doomed his campaign might have had a more deleterious affect on his unsuccessful race for governor of California in 1962. It took the invention of the “New Nixon,” and a refusal to debate, to send him to the White House in 1968.

And even though Obama can’t run again and Romney’s not likely to if he loses this time, any “gaffes” in this year’s debate could be utilized against each man’s political party, perhaps beyond the current campaign. We’ve already seen statements by the candidates—the “you didn’t build that” syntax slip-up by Obama and the secretly recorded “47 percent” remarks by Romney—used in attacks against Democrats and Republicans. It would not be surprising if something Obama or Romney says on Wednesday ends up in campaign commercials for congressional candidates, as an attempt to link opponents to the less popular aspects of their parties.

Read the rest here.

Tim Reidy


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Stanley Kopacz
6 years ago
Without the Libertarian and Green parties included, the debates are as phony as the conventions.  I haven't watched either for years.
ed gleason
6 years ago
JR:  "Romney start the debates by telling the President to stop lying.'
Good advise.. Romney would then lose Utah and Wy. along with the other 48
J Cosgrove
6 years ago
''JR, i suggested that President Obama ask Willard Romney to tell us what he is going to do for the 53% who will vote for him.''

I have a question.  Why did you address your comment to me?  I was reacting to the fact that the debates are supposed to be snoozers and have little effect.  In fact they are often not.  Just ask Rick Perry about the primary debates.  Past presidential debates have produced a few great lines (There you go again) and Nixon's personal appearance apparently had an effect in the one in 1960.  Was that the first one? 

I was only reacting to the fact that Christie's name was invoked and he had a very interesting and provocative suggestion.  Since Obama has a problem with the truth or consistency, I thought it would definitely make the debate memorable.  I watched some parts on his 60 minutes interview and it was full of lies.  But he was just repeating there what he always is saying.  I believe a Democratic Party talking point is the inconsistency of Mitt Romney so maybe the debate could be one which all are on display.

We could see whose nose grew the most during the debate.
J Cosgrove
6 years ago
I believe Christie recommended that Romney start the debates by telling the President to stop lying.  That  would get everyone's attention.  Obama is a serial liar so it would be fun to go into Obama's laundry list of misinformation and deceit.  That would be a debate that would be talked about for quite awhile.
6 years ago
JR, i suggested that President Obama ask Willard Romney to tell us what he is going to do for the 53% who will vote for him. I mean, it is hardly worth my while to send my man to cast my vote for Willlard if I don't know what i shall receive in return for the pretty penny I paid to have him elected.
David Smith
6 years ago
Curious how it's taken for granted that the debates are a sporting event, with two contestants fighting it out before the media and the public, who will give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Entertainment. Blood sport. Like two rival tribal chiefs fighting in the jungle. Creepy. We've not come far from our ape origins.
6 years ago
As far as I can see, an ocular activity that some may say is barrel visioned,  debating  the debates  is pointless because we Americans (not all) have become amoral, and will vote for the most amoral candidate. Who’s that? My Standard Encyclopedic Dictionary defines “amoral” as (1) Not  subject to, or concerned with, moral or ethical   distinctions.  (2) Lacking a sense of right and wrong.  Who best fits those definitions of being amoral? “Do men gather figs from thistles?”  “By (his)  their fruits shall you know (him) them!”  Of course! Kind of riddley, isn't it? Well, come to think of it this whole election process is riddley!
Rick Fueyo
6 years ago
"Since Obama has a problem with the truth or consistency, I thought it would definitely make the debate memorable. "

The most ironic post since te hsam eposter told someone they needed to learn economics


The latest from america

Salvadorans widely celebrated St. Romero as the Central American country's first saint. St. Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass in March 1980 and remains a reviled figure for some on the political right.
James K. A. Smith has spent much of his energy thinking about alternative communities and the politics of Jesus—about what role Christians should play in the American political project.
Patrick Gilger, S.J.October 18, 2018
While recommitting to help, L.I.R.S. and the U.S. bishops called on the Trump administration to “commit to immigration policies that are humane and uphold each individual’s human dignity.”
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 17, 2018
Caroline McClain, 16, sits on the ruins of her family's Mexico Beach vacation home after Hurricane Michael. Photo by Atena Sherry.
Human-driven climate change is intensifying tropical cyclones across the globe, climatologists say, but the role it played in the tragedy at Mexico Beach is both subtle and surprising.
Mario ArizaOctober 17, 2018