Don’t believe the hype about presidential debates | Transatlantic Voices | DW | 16.10.2012
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Transatlantic Voices

Don’t believe the hype about presidential debates

By all accounts Romney won the first round of the TV debates against Obama, but how important are they really? Vincent Michelot says debates can change the outcome of an election, but only under certain circumstances.

Do the debates between presidential candidates really matter? The short answer: It depends. How important are the remaining two debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? In a nutshell: Not very much.

In general, the significance of debates and their impact on the result of the elections are vastly overblown by the press which loves dramatic acts and game-changers. They are part of those campaign rituals which are supposedly turning points three days before and two days after. But they vanish in the distance of insignificance when political scientists look at an election a year later with hard data at hand.

In a way, debates are like the selection of a running mate. Two weeks before the announcement the press corps and their attending academics (full disclosure, I am one of them) are abuzz with rumors of who it may be and what the choice may mean. Then for another week after the name of the lucky winner has been made public, the same commentators draft scenarios of which states or segments of voters or topics the choice aims at influencing.

Limited impact

In the end, most political historians conclude that the only vice-presidential candidate who had a real impact on the result of a presidential contest was Lyndon Johnson in 1960. All the others like Dan Quayle, Geraldine Ferraro or George H.W. Bush rest in sweet political oblivion forever.

So consider this fact: It's impossible to ascertain what precisely makes undecided voters tick, specifically in an election such as this one where Americans are presented with a stark ideological contrast.

The approximately five percent of voters who have not decided who they will vote for (if they decide to vote) on November 6 are total riddles even for the most astute political operators. Since we have no idea how this amorphous and incomprehensible segment of voters will behave, we have a tendency to say that the debates will do their magic and a winner will be pulled out of the rhetorical hat.

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., makes a point as Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., listens during a town hall-style presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2008. (AP Photo/Jim Bourg, Pool)

Obama was seen as winner of the 2008 debates against John McCain

What's more, the impact of debates is also diminished by their format: It is a misnomer to call two parallel press conferences with a modicum of mediated/tampered exchange a "debate". The same could be said of town-hall forums in which candidates answer questions previously submitted to them.

Spin trumps evaluation

Finally, the spin clutter that comes out of both campaigns within minutes of the conclusion of the debates makes it very hard for an honest or candid voter to really come to an opinion for herself.

Debates rarely allow for nuance and complexity, which means that candidates often have two minutes plus a 30-second rebuttal to address and solve questions such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear Iran or the balance of payments between China and the United States.

This often leads to a long recitation of talking points in which the candidates' goals are modest. Stay on message and please, please don't goof up!

Virtual vultures

Essentially, we television viewers behave like virtual vultures waiting for the only really interesting moment, when a candidate invents a new country, goes into a long silence to find out which department of government he really wants to terminate (he can only count to three) or sees Russia from her bathroom window and reinvents herself as a Sovietologist or a Putinologist.

Look no further to understand why the number of Americans watching those debates has been steadily declining since the famous Kennedy/Nixon face-off in 1960.

And yet - even in the middle of the night in Paris, Berlin or London - a lot of us will be watching. Why?

Confirming their choice

Because in a very close election, the devil is in the details and one remark or a clever repartee might move a special segment of voters in a swing state. Therefore voters in the US and would-be voters in Europe relegated to the status of observers are looking for confirmations on certain key elements of the November 6 vote.

Republican presidential candidates former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (L) and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney walk past each other during a break in the Republican presidential candidates debate in Tampa, Florida January 23, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS (eingestellt sc/übung)

The Republican primaries gave Romney a lot of debating practice

For example: Is Mitt Romney's foreign policy as scary as he makes it sound? Is he over the threshold of competence on the economy which voters expect from a challenger? How will he talk to the 47 percent of Americans whom he claims are addicted to government and who supposedly belong in free-market rehab centers?

As for Barack Obama, we have an interesting case of a master orator who checked his pedagogical skills in the locker of the 2008 elections and threw away the key. Every liberal in the United States will be watching the debates with the hope that the president can finally weave together the great progressive narrative on the basis of which he can build a second term.

Tight race

Finally and crucially, the remaining debates on October 16 and 22 will only matter if by that time neither of the two candidates has created a significant gap in the electoral college predictions and is clearly in front in the polls.

That's why no one really paid serious attention to the Mondale/Reagan debates of 1984, or the Dole/Clinton debates of 1996. By that time, the press was already writing the obituaries of the challengers' campaigns.

On the other hand, if Mitt Romney is still within striking distance in October - a potential miracle in itself -, then yes the debates will matter.

So let your remote control do the voting.

Vincent Michelot is professor of political science at Sciences Po in Lyon, France.

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