Are the presidential debates like watching the Super Bowl, or do they sway, convince and influence voters?
The Annenberg Classroom is a consortium of college student voices who believe that, indeed, presidential debates are important. They even provide some tips for watching the debates from the League of Women Voters.
How to watch a debate
On a sheet of paper, make a list of issues that are important to you, with one column for each candidate.
· As the candidates answer, fill in their views in each candidate’s column.
· If the candidate’s answer makes sense, write “don’t understand.”
· If the candidate does not answer the question, write “didn’t answer.”
· When the debate is over, compare the candidate’s views and see which is best for you.
These suggestions assume the candidates will discuss the questions that are the most important to you. There are no guarantees, however, that the moderators will ask your questions. Also, one factor these suggestions take for granted is you have not decided whom to vote for. How many people wait until October, which is only a few weeks from Election Day, to actually decide? And do the debates serve other purposes besides convincing someone to vote for a particular candidate?
In the past debates have served as a viable forum for decision-making. The advent of broadcast political debates in the United States began with radio. Before the 1928 presidential election, the then-new League of Women Voters sponsored a 10-month series of nationally broadcast debates. The candidates did not participate; instead, journalists, scholars, and other politicians argued on their behalf.
In a previous article I wrote that scholars should be moderators, but the idea of having political scholars debate pertinent issues is even better. Although, it is understood having the candidates speak for themselves has obvious advantages. The League of Women Voters, forever on the cutting edge of political astuteness, used radio as an extremely effective methodology for an exchange of ideas during that 10-month series of debates. They used the broadcast medium to its maximum benefit to inform voters and actually assisted voters in their candidate decision-making process over time, instead of only four debates held a mere few weeks before Election Day, when much of the decision-making by voters already has been achieved.
The Super Bowl effect
Watching the presidential debates has been compared to watching the Super Bowl. Even if one is not necessarily a football fan, they don’t want to miss the half-time show. If a voter has already decided on whom to vote for, they don’t want to miss the spectacle that is surely to delight and entertain viewers. And when asked at work the next day, “did you watch the debates?” You can fulfill your civic duty by proudly saying “yes.” In this context the debates are entertainment versus a political forum.
The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 are the cornerstone for criticisms of televised presidential debates as political theater with little to no substance or effect on election outcomes. Because minority parties have been left out of debates, it’s no surprise they lead the decry that the debates are a sham. Critics point out after the debates both sides use the debates to spin the results for political advantage, such as it is. The media is in overdrive to identify their view on who was the “winner.” Then, media watchdog organizations and political advocacy groups question the debates’ legitimacy, even their legality. The candidates themselves pose and posture before acceding to the debates, none of which helps voters decide on the candidate who serves them.
Still, citizens watch the debates in total numbers that rival or even exceed the Super Bowl for viewership. The debates are their one opportunity in the campaign to see and hear the candidates speak directly to each other in a face-to-face encounter, which could be the one redeeming factor of presidential debates.
The first televised debates
The first televised debates in 1960 changed the way debates were held. History records the 1960 debates a great success with voters: According to data compiled by the ratings firm Arbitron, 73.5 million Americans saw that first debate, and two-thirds of the nation’s 45 million households with television sets tuned in to watch. If the political experts and pundits had their doubts, the public did not. One Detroit woman told the Wall Street Journal, “I learned more about what each man stands for in an hour than I have in two months of reading the papers.” A young Anchorage sales clerk who would be voting for the first time told the paper, “Before, I was concerned only with things like Kennedy’s grin and his religion, but now I feel the campaign is seriously grounded on issues. It was something I know I wouldn’t have taken the time to read in the papers.” Though most newspaper editorials called the debate a draw, anecdotal reports from viewers suggested that Kennedy had significantly increased his standing among undecided voters. (Newton and LaMay Inside Presidential Debates, 2008)
Polls after the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates revealed those who listened over the radio felt that Nixon won the debate; while those who watched on television had exactly the opposite opinion, which may or may not have been because Nixon was ill before the debates and appeared so on television. Kennedy was fit, young and healthy, and more importantly looked “presidential.” Nevertheless, the debates were compared to watching television shows where neither rhetoric nor politics rule the day. Rather, the rules of television rule the day: celebrity, visuals, conflict, and hype. The debates have been described as “a boxing match where fans are looking for knock out.” The emphasis became appearance, not substance. The power of television would prevail when a sharp retort from a candidate becomes a “sound bite” and is played continually by the television stations up until Election Day.
During presidential debates, the candidate who shows more charm and wit can win the hearts of voters and can be perceived as the “winner” of the debate. This might be a factor on getting the swing vote for the undecided, but many people have decided based on previous speeches made by the candidates. These previous pronouncements can also be basis for their decisions, which the League of Women voters captured in its original 10-month radio series before television, which is a good idea to revisit.
According to the latest Gallup Poll, only 8 percent of voters are undecided. President Obama and Romney are tied at 46 percent each. This answers one premise of this article that voters do not base their voting decision on the presidential debates; however, they would not miss the debates for much the same reason they would not miss watching the Super Bowl.
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Inside Presidential Debates, Newton and LaMay, 2008.