Soon after Barack Obama was not aggressive enough in his debate, Joe Biden may have been overly aggressive. Of course, that’s a debatable point, as any and all Democratic partisans will be quick to tell you. In fact, every year there is such a furor over debates: John Kerry came out as flat, Al Gore as snobbishly intellectual, and Dan Quayle as not even a poor man’s Jack Kennedy. Debates have been a tradition of Presidential campaigns for centuries, and yet the fundamental question remains: do debates have any effect whatsoever on the final outcome?
Several attempts at analyzing this effect have concluded that, while entertaining, the debates have very little impact on the outcome of recent Presidential races. Two in particular (both cited in this article from The New Yorker) emphasize data from immediately before and immediately after the entire debate season from several recent elections. Together, they show that the average change in candidate support in every election dating back to 1988 is less than 1%, or that the change in support for the Democratic candidate from 1976-2008 and 1960 was usually negligible. While there are several gaps in these data (what about prior to 1988, or what about the Republicans?), it is a useful starting point, especially when discussing the modern era of debates.
Most curious about these analyses is the lack of impact the 1960 debate had on the Democratic candidate. Conventional wisdom has that year’s televised debates as among the major turning points in that election, since Nixon’s image was so…well, resembled a slightly melted toad. And it may well be that there was a noticeable negative effect on Nixon’s popularity that doesn’t show up in Kennedy’s ratings. This is similar to the effect noted by Kim Fridkin (cited in this piece from The Washington Post) that media spin can radically alter who is perceived as having “won” the debate; Kennedy only mopped the floor with Nixon on television, where his makeup malfunction was readily apparent. The “visual appearance” factor also showed up in debates between the young, energetic Barack Obama and Old Man Winter…wait, that was John McCain? I was blinded by Hope…
But regardless. If we assume that debates have very little substantive impact on the election, then why do they exist? The simplest answer, perhaps, is readily known by anyone who did debate/forensics in high school: the great debate tradition dates all the way back to the US Senatorial debates held in 1858 by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Naturally, those debates were radically different than today’s, as there was no moderator and each candidate spoke at great length (debates regularly took over three hours). Curiously, these debates defined each candidate’s in a way which the modern debate does not. For instance, although Lincoln and Douglas both ran for President in 1860, there were no Presidential debates.
The next round of official debates occurred during the primaries in 1948 and 1956, although these were only radio broadcasts. True to mythology, the televised debates began in 1960, and almost immediately become national spectacles. Frankly, the debates are more about how the candidates make their points than what those points actually were, which is why I propose a slightly different debate format. If we really want our Presidents to be at least literate in just about everything, we ought at least check on this necessity in the debates. And because I desperately want Mitt Romney to talk about the “Larson era,” I propose debates on topics like these, from Comedy Central’s Indecision.
For your video of the week, here’s Stephen Colbert discussing debates.
And next week’s piece will be called “Whither Canada,” and I think the video’s already obvious.
Until next Monday!
Photograph from http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/33100565/ns/politics-mitt_romney?q=Mitt%20Romney