Jim Lehrer once claimed that debates were “probably the single most important events of a presidential campaign.” But was he right? Do Presidential debates matter?
Admittedly, they don’t decide elections; only a fraction of voters even watches debates, just 20% of the American public in 2008. And often the “winners” of debates go on to lose in the general election. Many experts even claim that debates can only confirm voters’ opinions of their candidates. In fact, in the 1984 election there wasn’t any measurable change in polling numbers after the debates. But Lehrer is right—and 1984 is the exception: debates do matter.
The Numbers don’t Lie: Some claim debates are irrelevant, with little long-term impact. Consider the Gallup Poll above. In almost every case (with 1984 the exception) there was an appreciable change in polling numbers during the period in which the debates were held. The three most striking examples are 1960, 1980 and 2000. In each of these years the eventual winner of the election went into the debates as an underdog and emerged a frontrunner. Sure, the debates might not be the sole cause of this change, but they were a turning point, a highly-watched opportunity for candidates to reverse their fortunes. And these aren’t the only important debates; debates in other years provided the s
ame opportunity, but the underdog either wasn’t capable of capitalizing on it, or was already too far in the hole. The 1992 debates exemplify both problems; Perot’s successes helped him make up ground, but not enough to become a serious contender, and Bush failed in what was seen as a “last ditch effort for [him] to shake-up the race.”
The Myth of Declining Viewership: A second claim is: while debates may not have been irrelevant in the past, they are now an anachronism due to stagnating viewership. Less Americans watched the debate in 2008 than in 1980, despite massive population increases. It is a strong point, but one which ignores two realities. First, debate viewership. While the viewership may be significantly lower today than in the 1976-1992, is trending slowly upwards once again. Second, it ignores the advent of the 24-hour news cycle. While less than 20% of the country may have watched the debate in 2008, clips and reactions were played constantly on television news shows, affecting the 91% of registered voters who claimed to be following the election closely and especially affecting the 55% who claimed to be following it “very” closely. Viewership might be trending down, but political awareness is still in its heyday. It is no wonder, then, that one of the most significant changes in voter preference occurred during the 2000 debates, the least watched debates.
Defining Winning: The press is obsessed with the idea of “winning” a debate, describing them in terms you could almost associate with a boxing match or foot race. This idea of “winning” isn’t rooted in policy issues, but rather candidates’ abilities to manage their and their opponents’ images by clearly articulating these issues. Nixon famously “lost” the 1960 debate because he appeared a shifty, sweaty wreck. In 2000, the race was between “the gregarious chairman of the Inter-Fraternity Council” and “the earnest president of the Science Club,” and it was because Bush maintained an image advantage that he was able to “win” the debates.
Moreover, the mainstream media has gone through a sort of “twitterization” as news sound bites continue to shrink in length (the average political sound bite is now less than 9 seconds long). In those nine seconds a candidate can’t fully articulate a stance or express himself thoughtfully, but he can make or ruin his image with a hard-hitting one-liner, like Regan’s “are you better off than you were four years ago?,” or disastrous gaffe, like Dukakis’ mishandling of the “rape and murder” question.
In Conclusion: These facts inform the exploration of televised Presidential debates set forth in this website. We will be paying attention to the themes and precedents created in these debates, as well as candidates’ successes and failures at image management; the “highlights” of the debates, as perceived at the time by the public via the press. It is these elements that have contributed to helping shape American Presidential debates, and through them, the American Political landscape.
Throughout these debates, the interest of the American public has shifted to focus less on the issues and more on the spectacle of the debates; constituents concentrate less on the candidates’ position and platform and more on their presentation. In response to viewer’s reaction, candidates have been forced to adopt new tactics to capture the attention of the American public.
Important note on debate transcripts: To demonstrate the disparity between the memorable moments of debates and the actual policy discussed, we have highlighted transcripts of each debate. Things highlighted in yellow represent important policy points. Things highlighted in blue represent the highlights or memorable moments. Noticeably, the colors rarely overlap.