The Obama-Romney presidential debate last
night (October 16) was seen as Obama’s comeback that put him in the lead again, as some
polls and the media suggest. Gaffes big and small were picked up on,
scrutinised and churned out again and again in the Twitterverse (Romney’s
binders full of women, for example, or the Libya issue). And, the pundits are
weighing in on how much this exchange matters in the whole race for both Obama
Last night's debate and all other presidential debates raise the question of just how much they actually matter to the end result? And, should they matter as much as they do? These two
questions are answered quite succinctly in Debating Our Destiny: Presidential
Debate Moments That Shaped History – a new e-book released yesterday based on
documentaries of the same name. The book looks at crucial presidential and
vice-presidential debates throughout history to answer important questions on
their power to influence voters’ opinions and the result on Election Day.
much do debates matter?
Sometimes, during Presidential debates,
there are moments that everyone knows is that one determining moment that either made or broke everything for the candidate.
In 1984, Reagan’s first presidential debate
against the comparatively younger Walter Mondale didn’t go so well and after that exchange the press
started to raise concerns about his age. In the second debate, however, Reagan
made a comeback when the issue of his age was brought up:
Reagan: I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to
exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.
After that, Reagan was back up in the polls
and, 16 days later, won on Election Day.
In 1992, President George H.W Bush’s
performance during the debate can be seen as his Achilles’ Heel, despite the
fact that he remained popular for a bulk of his presidency. Actually, it was
one thing in particular during the debate that was seen as his hamartia: the
fact that he kept checking his watch during one of his debates.
Lehrer: The Richmond debate, Mr President, you know
you caught a lot of heat for looking at your watch. What was all that about,
Bush: Yeah, oh God, do I remember. I took a huge
hit. That’s another thing I don’t like debates, you look at your watch and they
say that he hasn’t any business running for president. He’s bored and he’s out
of this thing.
Bush lost to Bill Clinton in that race. In
these instances, wins and losses in the debate equated to wins and losses on
But, the reverse can also be true – when a
win during a debate doesn’t seem to translate to a win in the polls, as was the
case for senator John Kerry in 2004, who seemed to have won all three debates
during the campaign but not the presidency.
Are the presidential debates really the
make-or-break deals that these examples would suggest?
According to this book, if the
two candidates have narrow margins, the debates probably do matter:
“When an election is decided by such small
margins – Kennedy garnered 118,000 more votes out of 68 million cast and George
W. Bush lost the popular vote by nearly 500,00 but won the Electoral College by
winning in Florida by less than 600 votes – the importance of the presidential
debates is magnified.”
It’s more accurate to view debates as
catalysts. “While they do not enter into the decision in a determinative way,
they add information to the ‘environment’ from which voters decide how to cast
And, of course, they affect the undecided
Another way to look at it, as outlined in
the book, is that “debates are to elections what treaties are to wars – they
ratify what has already been accomplished on the battlefield”. They confirm (or
Because of their importance, every element of a debate - the structure, the duration, whether the candidates are sitting or standing - are taken into consideration by the campaign team in order to make sure it plays to the candidates strengths. For example, the first time a town-hall style debate took place was in 1992 when Clinton was facing George H. W Bush head on. The Clinton team pushed for this structure because they knew that their candidate's "people skills shone in such environments." Also, during the Reagan-Mondale race, Mondale's team pushed for a 90-minute debate instead of a 60-minute one because, given Reagan's age, "they figured that Reagan would not have sufficient stamina to last that full time in good form."
they matter this much?
Is it right to come to such an important decision based on
mistakes made in the heat of the moment and short windows of opportunity to see
the candidates at work? Are debates a fair way to judge candidates?
In fact, President Richard Nixon was of the
view that debates didn’t help the incumbent in any way: “The incumbent…will
generally be at a disadvantage in debate because his opponent can attack while
he must defend.”
And, tiny errors become sensationalised,
particularly today in this social media era. If Bush's watch-glancing incident happened today, there'd be a Tumblr about it.
Also, as historian Michael Beschloss said in this book, there is a lot about a candidate that an audience cannot see in a debate:
"There are a lot of things that are important to find in a president that you will never see evidence of, pro of con, in a debate - how thoughtful someone is, how much knowledge they have about certain issues that may seem arcane but may turn out to be very important to know about, especially when a president has to make a fast decision in a war or an economic crisis; what a potential president's ability is in choosing people."
However, despite all that, debates are of
course instrumental and should remain that way. In the book, Alan Schroeder, author of another book on televised debate, says:
“debates ‘exist outside the whirl of
fund-raising and paid political announcements that characterises the day-to-day
pursuit of the White House,’ and therefore they play a different part in the campaign
than any other moment. Voters see not only the man or woman they support for
the highest office in the land but they also see the opposition candidate
outside of the framing done by their party, the partisan websites they visit or
the television attack ads.”
Debates also “inject more issues into the
campaign, by forcing candidates to address questions outside of their more
carefully scripted talking points.”
President Bill Clinton is quoted in this
book as saying that debates “give the voters the best chance they can get to
take the measure of a person under some fire and to hear people probing their
ideas to see the way they think…They don’t show whether you’re good at putting
together a team and, you know, carrying out a plan, but they do give people a
feel for what kind of leader the debater would be.”
As for tiny errors magnified, historian
Richard Norton Smith explains:
Richard: There are gaffes that stand alone
and maybe warrant a Saturday Night Live skit, but it’s the gaffes that reinforce
an existing image or stereotype – fair or not – that cause lasting damage.
It's because of this that George H.W Bush's little error became such a big deal; it reinforced the idea that he was a "candidate perhaps tired of the campaign itself, frustrated that no matter what he had accomplished as president before, there was no way to fight back." And, in the current race, every time Romney stumbles and plays to his rich white man stereotype, those gaffes are played up on and in turn become his weakness.
The book is a comprehensive investigation of the power of presidential debates by examining transcripts and interviews in the past.
Debating Our Destiny goes on to answer several other questions, such as the
future of presidential debates and how much vice presidential debates matter,
making it an entertaining book that’s easy to read and extremely timely at the
For more information, click here.