Why Presidential Debates Don’t Really Matter

Kennedy and Nixon in 1960Do Presidential debates really matter anymore? Political pundits affix so much significance to the candidates’ respective performances, and few dare to challenge them. Doubters about the importance of these debates are swept away by zealots who point to the iconic Lincoln-Douglas showdowns, or to the game-changing television debates a century later between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. But now, thirteen Presidential elections after two future political legends (whose administrations each ended in unique tragedy) waged a fierce debate in a TV studio in 1960, this question cannot be avoided: have we seen a moment like then since then? Has the course of a campaign been changed by a debate like it was with Kennedy and Nixon? The pundits would like us to think so…every year. This makes me wonder: Has the low-quality political rhetoric of the last 50 years been immune to Walter Reuther’s “Duck Rule?” The excessive analysis of today would have us believe that although it looks like a bad debate, sounds like a bad debates, and reminds us of all other previous bad debates, it still may not be a bad debate. The popular myths about Presidential debates and their impact will be examined in this article.

Myth #1: “Presidential debates are a significant fixture of the political liturgy.”

     This claim can be disputed simply by looking at the numbers. Just because Presidential debates have been an ever-present item in the election season, this does not mean that they are as important as they were 52 years ago. According to the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates, the average TV viewership of the 1960 debates was 63.1 million people. By comparison, the Obama-McCain debates in 2008 were viewed by an average of 57.4 million people, or about 9% less than in 1960. This statistic is made even more startling when one considers that the voting-age population in 2008 was over twice that of 1960. Therefore, today’s Presidential debates, in order to have 1960-level impact, would need to be viewed by over 120 million people. That has not happened, nor is it likely to ever be repeated.

Myth #2: “Debates give us a good sense of who will win in November.”

    While it may be true of 2008, the idea of Presidential debates helping predict election results is not given much help when 2000 and 2004 are considered. On September 4-6, 2000, a CNN/USA Today poll indicated that 44% of voters thought Al Gore would do a better job at debating, compared to George W. Bush’s 36%. Bush won the election by a razor-thin margin in the electoral college. Then again, on October 9-10, 2004, another CNN/USA Today poll showed Bush with 36% when it came to who would perform better in the debates, next to John Kerry’s muscular 54%. Bush won that election by an even larger electoral college margin, when exactly the opposite should have happened, if we tied debate success and election results together. Anyone who wishes to accurately predict this year’s winner would be wise to avoid depending on Presidential debate performances too heavily.

Myth #3: “Debates are abnormally effective with independents.”

     This may be the pro-debaters’ most potent argument. However, it can also be easily addressed. According to many polls, 55% of independents think that Barack Obama will perform better in the upcoming debates, but only 44% of independents approve of the President’s administration. There is a clear disjunct here, and pundits should take it into account when analyzing the debates’ impact on independents. These numbers show that many in the election’s most important voting bloc think that Obama’s advantage as an orator will not improve their views of his policies.

What’s the point?

    Ultimately, Presidential debates have become less important because the electorate is much more polarized than it was in 1960. 91% of Democrats think that Barack Obama will emerge victoriously from the debates, while 75% of Republicans say the same for Mitt Romney. This is one of the symptoms of political polarization: fair contests between ideas lose importance. The average American partisan would much rather watch an ideologically-homogenous convention, than watch his or her cherished dogma challenged on the debate stage. Unfortunately, the result is that we elect politicians-and Presidents-with the same uncompromising qualities, at the expense of bipartisanship.

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2 thoughts on “Why Presidential Debates Don’t Really Matter”

  1. Very good. I would add that the debates are less important because they are not true debates. There is no real expression of ideas/ plans. Instead, the politicians are too busy trying to avoid giving real answers (they may offend someone after all…..or…..what if the press doesn’t like something they say? they’ll be crucified) So instead of true debate, we are subjected to rambling answers that have nothing to do with the questions, standard “party-line” answers, or pithy one-liners for the media to run (ad nauseum). Who wants to watch that? Judging from the numbers, not very many.

  2. Appearance is so important in a debate. Just before the debate Nixon banged up his knee and he was in great pain during the debate, and it showed all over his face. If you were to hear the debate on radio you would have thought that Nixon had won, but if you watched it on TV you definitely thought Kennedy won.

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