The presidential election is tomorrow, and we had three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate.The vice-presidential debate arguably served to establish that Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden would not be an issue in the presidential sweepstakes.
Let us speculate on the role of debates in presidential campaigns with first some perspective on a prevailing myth: presidential debates have little effect on presidential races and never have.
Truth: There is no way to be certain regarding the effect of said debates on the presidential voting outcome, but arguably in the 11 years of presidential debates (1960, 1976-2012) they may have had a significant effect in all years but 1984, 1988 and 1996.
In Reagan’s second campaign in 1984, he had a miserable debate. Confused and unfocused, he lost one point in the polls after his bad first debate showing.
In 1988 Michael Dukakis, contrary to popular belief regarding a major debate gaffe regarding his diffidence when CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked him his view on capital punishment if his (Dukakis’s) wife were killed, was losing significantly by the time of the debates.
In 1996 Bob Dole, intent on demonstrating he was no longer the nasty man of the 1976 Vice Presidential debates, offended no one and was a perfect couplet to his excellent-but-passive vice presidential running mate, Jack Kemp.
When were debates arguably quite significant?
Before presidential debates in 1960 President Kennedy was little known, but his visuals and rhetorical brilliance in the 1960 debates overwhelmed the irritating, television-averse Richard Nixon.
In 1976 President Gerald Ford and his pardoning of Nixon along with a memorable debate gaffe on Eastern Europe led to his undoing; in 1980 debates made Americans comfortable along with the previously perceived-as-radical Governor Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter’s economy and Iran-linked hostage weakness coupled with Gov. Reagan’s debate-tested “There you go again” and “Are you better off today than you were four years ago” won him the election going away.
In 1992 Ross Perot and Gov. Bill Clinton ganged up on George H. W. Bush and that, not the president’s looking at his watch, lost him the debates and the presidency.
In 2000 the multi-personality debate persona of Vice President Gore, not the Florida vote count, lost him the presidency to George W. Bush, although the latter was a weak debater.
In 2004 the expectation was that debates would destroy George W. Bush, but John Kerry – he of the flip-flop reputation (and currently likely chief purveyor of the Romney flip-flop accusation by President Obama in debates) – was never convincing that he was no longer the irresponsible, pre-eminent anti-war protester.
In 2008 Sen. John McCain was so intent on being perceived as a good and fair man (see Dole, Robert, 2006) that he didn’t bring up Sen. Barack Obama’s questionable associates until the third debate. Why didn’t he emphasize President Obama’s utter inexperience more? Probably thought it would offend someone – oh, and Sarah Palin’s failing paroxysm of popularity was foreseen by all who despaired over this unvetted in-your-face choice who faltered in the Vice President debate to a reasonably unsmiling Joe Biden.Whatever happened to him?
So, what have the debates done for the 2012 candidates? First, the well-traveled, but seriously unknown, Mitt Romney became more than an abstract symbol of supercilious nobility. President Obama showed he could come back from inexplicable debate lethargy to fight for his presidency. And , finally, the debates revealed that it was an election about two things: Gov. Romney’s claim that President Obama has failed economically versus President Obama’s claim that Gov. Romney is a chameleon who cannot be trusted in the Oval Office (see Kerry, John, 2004).
If the governor wins, it says here it was due to his articulate unanswered litany of economic travails in debate #2, and if the president wins, it was due to the third debate’s erasure of foreign policy as an issue.
Whoever wins, it was arguably the debates that did it.
Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University, has done national debate commentary for CBS Radio, WBAL Radio in Baltimore, WTOP Radio in Washington and several television stations. He is the author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012, 2013)