In the October 5th oxypoliticselectionblog post, “Post-Debate Debating,” Anonymous Student states:
“This debate in my opinion was also a perfect example of how, in the grand scheme of things, debates generally do not matter and perhaps are even misleading to the general public.”
While I do agree with Anonymous that debates are misleading to the general public, claiming that this debate didn’t matter is wishful thinking for the Obama supporters.
(Additionally, I disagree with anonymous on the claims that Wednesday’s debate at Denver University was “no disappointment;” or that both candidates, “performed well and made bold, assertive statements.” I would argue that the most exciting and entertaining aspects of this debate were Romney’s unusually clever jokes, Obama’s remarkably white teeth, and the intense power struggle between the two candidates and Jim.)
Indeed, the debate was filled with many inconsistencies, but one thing was for sure; Romney’s performance left Democrats shaking. Recent public opinion polls project an even closer campaign since his negative comments regarding America’s “47% who don’t pay income tax” (which he’s even decided to re-hash given his positive performance at last Wednesday’s debate).
So, given Romney’s surprisingly successful performance, Anonymous is on to something with the question: do debates matter? Academics have researched the effects of such since debates started to become “business as usual” following the onset of television in campaigns and elections post-1952. More often than not, debates do not matter in the “grand scheme of things,” as they largely function as an “entertainment” aspect of the presidential campaigns that we’ve come to expect in the modern media age. However, in close races, debates can make a difference, and are particularly useful for candidates who are behind. Case in point: After Wednesday’s debate, Obama’s lead has narrowed significantly, with some polls now even stating that Romney has gained a 49-47 lead over Obama (Read it at Fox News). Gallup polls during the 1980 presidential campaign indicated a 4-point lead by incumbent Jimmy Carter through October:
Yet, Reagan ended up winning the election by 9 points.
In 2008, Obama’s strategic advisor David Axelrod commented on Obama’s debate advantage, “The debates, coupled with the financial crisis, gave people the sense of assurance they needed that this would be change, but it would be safe as well.” Notwithstanding recent headlines heralding the economy’s comeback in light of recent labor statistics, reporters are forecasting cloudy skies ahead for the Obama camp in light of the recent debate. Could it be that Romney was simply more successful presenting himself as the “safe change” we need to bring our economy back to its pre-recession glory? The most recent of the presidential campaigns lost by incumbents Jimmy Carter and George Bush suggest a frightening possibility for President Obama’s reelection campaign. Both Carter and Bush were criticized for their passivity; both presided in office over a tanking national economy; and both were outshone by their respective opponents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton in the televised debates.
While Barack Obama’s exceptional charisma has certainly given him presidential popularity points in the past, his sad performance at the debate was reminiscent of Carter’s infamous defeat to Reagan. Mitt Romney is increasingly proving his entertainment potential (see: Lucille and Mitt). The American electorate in the new media age has a significantly shorter attention span—perhaps President Obama has just become to boring?