Going through the hoops begins tonight with President Obama and Mitt Romney debating.
What will it mean, to have debated? According to WP’s Ezra Klein, there have been no elections decided based on debates. However, debates provide one more nail in the coffin for the loser and one more notch on the rail for the winner.
To review, debating skills are essential and by the time candidates reach this level, it is assumed they have them. The focus should be on content and reasoning. Voters should be able to understand policy, legislation, outcomes and measures.
For incumbent President Obama, domestic policy begins with producing a sustainable economy, one that produces a good life for all with acceptable upward mobility. It must achieve this with minimal damage to the environment.
The President’s argument is that we are on course and need to push forward. Candidate Romney’s argument is that Obama’s course is wrong and that we cannot afford to stick with it. That begs the question, what is the right course?
“Presidential debates are remembered more for gaffes such as George H. W. Bush looking at his watch during a question from the audience, or Michael Dukakis offering an analytical answer to a hypothetical question about what he would he would do if his wife were raped and murdered.
The same holds with the vice presidential forums. In 1988, the Republican
Dan Quayle claimed he was no more inexperienced than John F. Kennedy was in 1960.
His Democratic opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, famously retorted: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”
Four years later, a retired admiral named James Stockdale, the running mate of the independent candidate Ross Perot, attained immortality with his opening comments: “Who am I? Why am I here?””
“Wonkbook’s number of the day: 0. That’s the number of recent elections that we can confidently say were decided by debates.
Gallup, for instance, reviewed their polls going back to 1960 and concluded they “reveal few instances in which the debates may have had a substantive impact on election outcomes.” Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, in “The Timeline of Presidential Elections,” looked at a much broader array of polls and concluded that there was “there is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates.” Political scientist John Sides, summarizing a careful study by James Stimson, writes that there’s “little evidence of [debate] game changers in the presidential campaigns between 1960 and 2000.
That’s not to say debates can’t matter, or that these debates won’t matter. The race remains close, and there are examples — 1960, 2000 and 2004, for instance — where debates made a race more competitive, even if they didn’t clearly change the outcome. Simply closing the gap a bit would be a big win for Mitt Romney, if for no other reason than it would keep Republican donors invested in his chances going into the campaign’s final weeks.
One caveat to keep in mind, though: It’s not necessarily “the debates” that matter. It’s the debates plus the way the debates get spun in the media. There’s good evidence, in fact, that the media’s spin is actually more important than the debates themselves. For more on that, read this article by Dylan Matthews, which is the best primer you’ll find on what we do and don’t know about what matters in presidential debates. The graphs are great, too.”