How debates affect elections
The importance of Presidential debates is always discussed during debate season with two schools of thought on the topic. Some believe that debates do little in changing the outcome of presidential elections while others point to clear evidence that debates do more to sway voters than all the attack ads money can buy.
The voters seem evenly divided today, and there are only a few things which can move public sentiment prior to November. The economy is already bad, but if it gets worse — and is perceived as getting worse — that could shift votes. Obama could plan an “October surprise” in the international arena, as Donald Trump has suggested, but the very modest blip after the death of Osama bin Laden and the war-weariness of Americans make that a dubious ploy which could easily fail. Romney’s choice of a running mate will likely give him a brief blip in support as well, but it looks today as if there is nothing to really change voters much before November…except for the presidential debates.
Conventional wisdom is that the presidential debates are not that important, but that is not necessarily true. Nixon in 1960 lost the election because of poor makeup in his debates with JFK. Ford may well have lost in 1976 by stating that Poland was not under Soviet domination. Reagan’s “There you go again” might have turned a close race into the landslide of 1980. Al Gore’s intimidating lurch towards Bush in 2000 seems to have shifted votes as well. There have been televised debates in ten presidential elections, and about half the time, those debates seem to have made a difference.
If the debates swing voters, almost certainly those votes will move to Romney, for several different reasons. As Herman Cain recently noted, Romney is much more experienced that Obama. Romney has participated in more televised political debates over a longer period of time, through a wider spectrum of races, than Obama. Romney’s life experiences are broader than the leftist academic and Chicago machine politics of Obama. Romney, viewed fairly by conservatives who did not want him as their nominee, should be a much more effective debater against Obama than McCain was in 2008.
More so than any of the primary debates, the upcoming Obama/Romney debates in October seem more intriguing than ever. There are vulnerabilities on both sides that can be exploited during these televised match-ups.
In 2004, for example, I recall John Edwards attempting to use the Vice Presidential debate to point out that Dick Cheney’s daughter, Mary Cheney, was gay in an attempt to try and call out the Vice President on the grounds of hypocrisy over gay marriage. John Kerry did the same thing during a Presidential debate by dropping that piece of information while debating President Bush. Both occasions were an attempt to use the massive national audience to raise the awareness of this fact in the context of the gay marriage ban initiatives on many state ballots in 2004.
Debates present a huge national audience so if you’re going to drop some major tidbit in an attempt to sway voters, this is the venue to do it in.