Debate Season Looms

Eight quick thoughts on the arrival of debate season….

1)    There are three presidential debates, as well as one vice presidential debate, scheduled this year. The first presidential debate, focusing on foreign policy, will take place this Friday, September 26, in Oxford, Miss.  On Thursday, October 2, the one vice presidential debate will be held in St. Louis, Mo.  It will be followed on Tuesday, October 7, by a town-hall style presidential debate in Nashville, Tenn.  And finally, on Wednesday, October 15, the presidential debate on domestic and economic policy will be held in Hempstead, N.Y.

2)    Collectively, the debates are likely to dominate the campaign for the twenty days over which they take place, roughly half the remaining time between now and Election Day.  Although the shape of the campaign may of course be changed by major external events—such as the recent Wall Street meltdown—the debates are the last scheduled aspect of the campaign that provides an opportunity for a major shift in momentum.

3)    From the dawn of the modern, televised presidential debate in 1960, these events have been about perception as much as they’ve been about substance.  The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates quickly became the stuff of legend.  The radio audience of the first debate felt that Nixon had won. But the much larger TV audience—an estimated eighty million people—gave the nod to Kennedy.  Nixon, tired, in poor health, and badly made-up, looked terrible.  In a very close election, many came to see this debate as the key turning point.

4)    While audience perceptions of the debates have always been important, for the last quarter century or so, U.S. media analysis of presidential debates has tended to revolve around a very self-conscious conversation about those perceptions.  The 1984 campaign was the real watershed in this regard, as the media began reporting on the Mondale and Reagan campaigns’ attempts to spin the results of each debate. Indeed, the term “spin doctor” first appeared in print in a New York Times op-ed about one of the 1984 presidential debates.

5)    The media’s tendency to focus on audience perceptions and the campaigns’ attempts to mold them at first reflected a kind of sophistication about presidential debates as well as an emerging, broader tendency to focus on the “horse race” aspects of presidential politics.  But in the last decade or so, debate coverage has become almost mannerist in its emphasis on the battles over perceptions, symbols, appearances, gaffes, and expectations over and above analyzing the substance of what the candidates’ say.  This rococo style of debate coverage really began in 2000. The media discussion of the first Bush-Gore debate centered on Gore’s apparently repeatedly sighing during some of Bush’s answers.  Although there’s little evidence that audiences much noticed the sighs while watching the debate, they came to dominate the narrative of what had happened and how the audience perceived the two candidates.

6)    If the primary debates are any indication, neither Barack Obama nor John McCain particularly shines in this format.  Obama, whose great skill is the stump speech, is prone to sound high-handed or to express views that, however intelligent, when reduced to debate soundbites need to be “clarified” by his campaign afterward.  McCain, who is a somewhat wooden presence at the best of times, is also not much helped by a format that encourages going off script.  McCain forum or debate appearances that end up as relative successes are often those in which he most doggedly returns to chunks of his stump speech.  McCain’s campaign clearly believes that he is best in the so-called town-hall meeting format, a pseudo-free exchange with (often handpicked) members of the audience asking (often carefully screened) questions. Indeed, McCain tried to convince Obama to appear in a large number of such events with him in addition to the scheduled presidential debates; Obama declined. While there certainly have been candidates who’ve excelled in this format—Clinton, for example, was far more comfortable and confident in this setting than either of his two Republican presidential opponents, I remain unconvinced that McCain is a great master of the townhall meeting. 

7)    Unlike 2000 and 2004, when George W. Bush’s perceived and actual debate ineptitude was spun into perceptual gold by his campaign, neither Obama nor McCain enters these debates as a clear underdog whose performance will be measured against an artificially lowered standard. But there is a danger for both these candidates that audiences, the media, and the media’s chimerical audience of its imagination will consequently be surprised by how mediocre Obama and McCain can be in a debate format. If either candidate has the kind of off night both are capable of in a debate format, he could spark a Gore-and-his-sighs story from a media hungry for “narrative.”  The Gore story was made possible—and became damaging—precisely because the media had long portrayed him as a self-involved elitist.  This year, each candidate faces a series of potential, negative narratives into which a poor debate performance could be fit

8)    One final factor: when the Commission on Presidential Debates, the organization created and run by the two major parties that replaced the truly non-partisan League of Women Voters as the sponsor of presidential debates in 1988, planned these debates last fall, this Friday’s debate was to be about domestic issues and the final debate was to be on foreign affairs. At the mutual request of both candidates, these topics were flipped.  Nate Silver has some interesting thoughts about which campaign is likely to benefit most from this move.