Presidential debates have been a part of American culture since 1960 when the country viewed its first nationally televised debate, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Almost immediately as the microphones and cameras were turned on, televised debating began to take on the artificial façade that remains today.
Kennedy, only four years younger than Nixon, came into the debate fresh. The day before the debate Kennedy had been campaigning in Florida where he caught a slight tan, which helped pit himself against a much paler and unhealthy looking Nixon. Nixon was in ill health, was in pain from an accident involving his knee earlier in the day and looked flushed and outmatched compared to Kennedy’s charismatic, calm and collected style. Ironically, those that tuned into the debate on radio felt that Nixon had won the debate and those watching on television were generally in favor of Kennedy’s performance. Beyond the small anecdotes of that night the most profound mistake Nixon made was his failure to understand the importance of television and the power of appearance and perception.
The impact of the four Kennedy-Nixon debates created a nearly 16-year moratorium on presidential debates largely because incumbents saw it as a mistake to legitimize their opponent by appearing on stage beside them. They also feared the public backlash in response to an ill performance, which essentially destroyed Nixon’s campaign. Kennedy later claimed that he had won the presidency that night following their first debate.
Candidates have quickly learned from the mistakes of their predecessors and our modern debates are cleaner and more polished than ever, yet millions of viewers hang on to every word, movement and facial expression hoping to exploit a gaffe à la Gerald Ford in the fall of ‘76 when he responded to a question posed by Max Frankel stating "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Major blunders have helped candidates learn from their predecessor’s mistakes. It seems unlikely that either Obama or Romney will make a mistake of such magnitude. The formats of the debates are conducive to the stylish, sleek, and polished look presented by the networks, and it enables the candidates to mitigate their exposure to tough lines of questioning.
It is highly unlikely that either candidate will weigh the polls in any one direction following next Wednesday night’s debate. Those that think Romney is going to have a JFK moment and upset the better known incumbent best be prepared for disappointment. Romney may take the debate, considering he debated 22 times during the primary as opposed to Obama who has not debated in nearly four years, but he will not come out of the debate with a substantial bump in the polls. The majority of voters tuning in on Wednesday will not be undecided. These voters are watching the debate as a form of entertainment. Most are not watching to be educated on each candidate’s policies but rather are waiting for the headline gaffe by the candidate they oppose.
George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and many other presidential candidates have likened debating to competitive athletics. This analogy plays particularly well in our current election cycle. The majority of football fans do not sit down on a Sunday to watch a game hoping that a certain team changes their opinion or fan base by the end of the fourth quarter. Sides are pre-determined and we simply watch for entertainment. Sadly enough, Wednesday night will merely confirm our partisanship rather than change our minds. This is not to say that the debate will not be informative or worthwhile-- it is guaranteed to be entertaining, although as viewers we should take pause and acknowledge what these debates represent.
These debates should not be viewed as a barometer for undecided voters. CNN and other networks will monitor the reaction of a randomly selected number of ‘independent voters’ throughout the debate. Unfortunately, our debate structure excludes third party candidates despite there being rare instances of third party participation, such as Ross Perot in ‘92, but the contrived 15% needed in national polls is hard to come by for third party candidates. The two parties and candidates that we get during these debates are well known, and if the effort is made their positions should be well understood. Therefor an independent voter leading up to these debates must be result of either apathy or lack of research on the part of the voter.
So to the thousand or so undecided voters — do yourself a favor and pick a team, you’ll enjoy the game more.
For a complete presidential debates schedule run-down, see here.