by Dr. G. Terry Madonna and Michael L. Young
October 01, 2004
Two more of these quadrennial collisions are scheduled next month, plus a single vice-presidential debate.
Enormous attention, preparation, time and resources go into the debates. Both the polls and the press take them very seriously - and why not. After all, the debates are the crucial events of the campaign aren't they? They are high noon in a long presidential slugfest, the defining moment of the election and that decisive confrontation that determines who wins and who loses the greatest electoral prize in the world?
In a nation where nothing matters but winning, the debates are everything. End of story!
Well, maybe. But if you want to believe that the debates are the defining events of the campaign - that they are usually or ever decisive - or that they will be decisive this year - you are free to do so. But if you do, you should know that there are few facts to support that belief. And the facts that we do have suggest that debates rarely matter in the outcome of an election. Moreover it is unlikely that they are ever decisive.
This is not orthodox thinking about debates. Conventional thinking assumes debates are important -- and have been since the vaunted Kennedy- Nixon contest in 1960. Campaign lore from that race has long held that Kennedy, the underdog in 1960, won the election because he beat Nixon in the debates. The hard evidence for this conclusion however is scant. Kennedy more than stood his ground during the first debate, but Nixon held his own in the other two. In fact, Nixon was actually gaining on Kennedy at the end of the campaign.
Evidence is similarly weak that the debates have been decisive in other presidential contests. For example, some believe that Gerald Ford's gaffes on Eastern Europe critically wounded him in his contest with Jimmy Carter. But Ford's loss that year was more likely due to an ongoing recession, continuing resentment over Watergate, and the Nixon pardon.
In fact, almost every recent presidential race generates its anecdotes to support the argument that debates win or lose elections. The 1984 Reagan -Mondale contest exemplifies the tendency to ascribe momentous importance to debate events. During Reagan's first debate with Mondale, he appeared confused and stumbled over answers. Suddenly Reagan's alertness was an issue.
But Reagan put the question behind him in the second debate with his witty answer to a question about his age--responding that he would not make age an issue by exploiting his opponent's "youth and inexperience." Reagan's age dissipated as an issue in the campaign. We are told that Reagan won with a one liner.
Then in the 1988 debate, so it is believed, Michael Dukakis lost his chance to beat George Bush when the anti-death penalty Dukakis was asked what he would do if his wife was brutally raped and murdered. Dukakis gave a cold and impersonal response that hurt him with viewers. His opponent, George Bush, allegedly used the moment to establish a much closer and more emotional rapport with viewers.
The lore continues: four years later in 1992, George Bush himself stumbled against Bill Clinton when he was caught on camera looking at his wrist watch--apparently bored by the proceedings. Another version of the same race is that Bush lost because he appeared out of touch when answering some questions.
All of these little stories are amusing, some are even poignant. The problem with them however, is that they are just stories --- anecdotes told to make a point, and to try to explain why a particular election turned out the way it did. They are more folklore than politics, more art than science. Had a particular election turned out differently, we would have a different story to memorialize it.
But if the debates didn't decide these elections, then what did? The hard, cold fact is that the elections from 1976 through 2000 more plausibly hinged on other factors, including voters' evaluation of the economy and approval of foreign policy. Each of these elections had its own dynamics. But these perennial fundamentals mattered most. The debates probably were not decisive.
Some have contended that the razor thin contest this year will somehow make the 2004 debates matter. But we have had other close elections, including 1960, 1976, and 2000. If the debates weren't decisive then, they arguably won't be decisive this year either.
Debates make great stories -and we tell great stories about them.
But we also need to keep our stories straight. Debates are important but they are not decisive. They don't determine who wins or loses. They never have. They won't this year. That's our story -and we're sticking with it.
Dr. G. Terry Madonna
Note: Dr. G. Terry Madonna
is Professor of Public Affairs, Director of the Center for Politics
and Political Affairs and the Keystone Poll of Franklin and Marshall
College. Michael L. Young is a Political Analyst.
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Sitnews.