Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Prez debates a game changer? Historically, no

Politicians, their supporters and the pundits tell us the presidential debates between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney - which start next Wednesday - could be a "game changer." That's something a lot of Romney backers are eagerly anticipating, given his rough couple of weeks on the campaign trail and a widening gap between him and Obama in several election polls.

But aside from the legendary 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, the first televised presidential debate, where Nixon seemed to sweat away pounds and looked uncomfortable while Kennedy came off as poised and in control, do presidential debates really change things? Kennedy by the way moved ahead in the polls after that debate and won a narrow victory. Today is the anniversary of that Kennedy-Nixon debate.

Most future televised debates had no clear winner and no discernible impact on the election. There have been a few hiccups that seemed to matter though. Karen E. Crummy and Chuck Murphy of the Denver Post take note of a couple in a recent article. Said the two journalists: "While politicians and pundits like to characterize presidential debates as election game-changers, years of polling data show that they have mattered only a handful of times over the past 50 years. One was in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter said he consulted 12-year-old daughter Amy on her concerns about nuclear proliferation, helping swing the race 6 points overnight. (Ronald Reagan won in a landslide.) Another was in 2000 when Al Gore persistently interrupted George W. Bush, sighed and appeared agitated - and an 8-point lead in the polls evaporated in the roll of his eyes."

Even in those instances, however, the so-called debate effect was not considered the sole determining factor in the elections. ( Indeed, Gore won the popular vote over Bush)."

And I'll add that if there had been a different U.S. Supreme Court, Gore might have won. As you recall, it was the Supremes who stopped the vote recount in Florida where the vote returns were in dispute.

There have been others where televised debates seemed to matter. In 1976, the race between President Gerald Ford (who took over after Nixon resigned) and Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter was a dead heat until the second debate between the two. Ford reportedly had already cut into Carter's large lead in the polls, and was generally viewed as having won the first debate on domestic policy. Polls released after this first debate indicated the race was even. However, in the second debate on foreign policy, Ford made what was widely viewed as a major blunder when he said "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." After this, Ford's momentum stalled, and Carter won a very close election.

A recent Washinington Monthly article cites two studies by academics that are unequivocal that presidential debates change little. Political scientist James Stimson, author of "Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics," did a comprehensive study and concluded: "There is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates.” Political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien did an even more comprehensive study that includes every publicly available poll from the presidential elections between 1952 and 2008. They found that excluding the 1976 election, which saw Carter’s lead drop steadily throughout the fall, “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates” - meaning that in the average election year you could tell the winner by where things stood before the debates.

Vice presidential debates seem to matter even less though there have been some memorable zingers. Remember Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen taking on Republican vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle, whose inexperience showed? In the 1988 debate, Quayle attempted to ease fears by saying he had as much experience as John Kennedy did when he ran for President in 1960. Bentsen shot back: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Of course, the comment also highlighted the fact that Bentsen was quite elderly.

In any case, this year, experts do acknowledge that a lot of other factors are affecting the campaigns, not the least of which is a slew of TV ads from both the candidates and outside groups supporting them.

 Most people are said to have already made up their minds about who they'll vote for so the debates and debate answers are aimed at a small sliver of the populace who say they are undecided.

So unless there's some major gaffe, you might be disappointed if you're tuning into the debates hoping for a game changer. You can hope for entertainment. Over the years, that's been a better bet.

Posted by Fannie Flono


CarolinaDrums said...

What kind of crap op ed is this?

Skippy said...

Poster #1 it is a pre-emptive cover for the clown President who will not be able to defend anything that he has done in the last 4 years.

Unknown said...

Maybe when the american people see what a loser Obummer is without a teleprompter or iPhone to get his info from,He will lose a couple of points.

Tanksleyd said...

What about Dukakis who got zapped when Bernard Shaw asked him the rape question in 1988?

J said...

"That's something a lot of Romney backers are eagerly anticipating, given his rough couple of weeks on the campaign trail and a widening gap between him and Obama in several election polls."

Gulp that blue Kool-Aid, Fannie! The polls with the "widening gap" were conducted by CBS News and the Washington Post, 2 of the most brazenly liberal media outlets in the nation, and the people polled were 54% Democrat and 46% Republican. Of course Obama is going to have a large lead when you ask that many more registered Democrats who they are going to vote for.

The Rassmussen polls are much more accurate historically, and their latest poll shows a deadlock - 46% to 46%.

The closeness of the race bothers me. I fear it's going to be 2000 and 2004 all over again, where it comes down to which candidate wins 1 state, and that state's vote will be tight. Then, no matter who wins, it will be lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit and we may be waiting until January 19 for a winner.

I just hope we don't have thousands of 80-year-olds mugging for TV cameras and gleefully admitting that they were too stupid to figure out how to vote, like there were in 2000.