On Sunday, October 14, a special edition of ABC’s This Week, produced with the Miller Center, focused on the question, "Do presidential debates change elections?" Today’s guest post provides a scholarly response to the question.
Traveling for a lecture trip on the night of Election 2012’s first presidential debate, I wasn’t among the nearly 70 million viewers of the event. But as I raced through the Charlotte airport, I glimpsed a gaggle of fellow travelers gathered around a restaurant television. Pausing for a few minutes, I noticed that President Obama looked uncharacteristically uncomfortable, with his eyes turned downward toward the podium, while on the split screen Governor Romney animatedly presented his case. Little did I realize that my instant analysis of the debate’s image would become the accepted postmortem. Whereas the president had earned the moniker “No Drama Obama” for his unflappable campaign persona in 2008, four years later opponents and supporters alike concluded that he was missing in action on the Denver stage: No Obama had become the drama.
It remains to be seen whether that lackluster performance will contribute to his loss of a second term, but the odds in his favor have lowered, along with his standing in the polls, since his Rocky Mountain breakdown. In 2008 the young senator had been compared favorably with John F. Kennedy and had received endorsements from both JFK’s daughter Caroline and his brother Teddy. For the first debate in 2012’s contest, Obama could have used the support of parents like Rose and Joe Kennedy. Jack’s devoutly Catholic mother prayed the entire day of Jack’s first presidential debate in hopes that her intercessions would boost her son over Richard Nixon, the more experienced debater. She was thrilled when her prayers were answered! After his victorious performance, JFK phoned his father who gave him a rave review. Jack turned to his alter-ego, Ted Sorensen, and explained, “If I had slipped and fallen flat on the floor, my dad would have said, ‘The way you picked yourself up was terrific!’”